War’s manly face: comments on the Cologne attacks

cropped-koln.pngIn the 1950s an anonymous author published her book A Woman in Berlin, in which the history of mass rapes perpetrated at the end of the Second World War by Red Army soldiers (white men) against German (white) women is described. Grbavica, directed by Jasmila Žbanić, tells the story of rapes perpetrated by Serbian men (white Christians) against Bosnian women (white Muslims) during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Stories of women from Vietnam, Bangladesh, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and most recently Libya, Iraq and Syria (Henry 2016), victims of mass rapes perpetrated by men (white, black, Asian, catholic, orthodox, Muslim, atheist, old, young, unemployed, educated etc.) during armed conflicts, still wait to be told.

All the above-mentioned cases serve as examples of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women as strategies of war, and all of them are linked by the fact that the perpetrators are men. As Nicola Henry (2016: 44) agues, “rape is a product of warped (yet normalized) militarized hegemonic masculinity, which arguably is structurally embedded in pre-conflict gender inequality and unequal power relations”. Therefore, the model of toxic, violent masculinity, not ethnicity, social class, age, religion or nationality, should be taken into consideration when discussing the issue of sexual violence against women.

But what do wartime rapes and the events of New Year’s Eve – when groups of men perpetrated acts of sexual violence against women not only in Cologne but also in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Helsinki, Kalmar and Zurich – have in common? A lot, apparently. There is evidence that the New Year’s attacks were part of an organised action: the same scenario took place at the same time in several different European cities and, according to witnesses from Germany, some perpetrators’ comments were inadequate to the level of German language typical for the majority of refugees. The hypothesis that the attacks were organised is shared by the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas. It not impossible that the attacks on women might have been organised by Daesh (ISIS) or other terrorists groups, who are currently engaged in war against Europe, and this is what might have happened:

Daesh (or other groups) has concluded that “classical” terrorist acts such as the recent attacks in Paris do not fulfill their purpose adequately as Europeans are not intimidated and refuse to link previous terrorist attacks with the influx of refugees. Therefore, they decided to use sexual violence as a strategy of war and managed to engage a tiny number of actual refugees in these actions in order to finally link them with terrorism.

It’s rather easy to imagine a situation in which charismatic terrorists infiltrate the refugee milieu and fish around for several hundred (from around one million refugees living in Germany at the moment) men who are easy to manipulate, lonely, rooted out from their families and communities, deprived of the social competences enabling the proper interpretation of the cultural codes shared among the majority in European societies and play on their desires. The desire to retrieve a sense of “real” and “strong” masculinity, in other words hegemonic masculinity, which was lost once they were labelled as refugees and their sense of manhood degraded to subordinated masculinity instead, could have led these men to engage in these acts. According to Raewyn Connell (2000), hegemonic masculinity is a set of male traits that form a certain model of masculinity in any given culture or society. This masculinity model is highly valued and desirable and is linked to power, domination, strength and heterosexuality. Hegemonic men dominate in certain groups and societies and subordinate not only other, non-hegemonic men but above all women. Another driving force might have been the desire to be part of a community, which in this case appeared to be a group of young, drunk men, where aggressiveness and violent behaviours are not only tolerated but often rewarded. Pierre Bourdieu claims that masculinity is a certain type of social game where violence seems to be one of the most important relational elements. Men internalise the basic rules of “violence games” in the process of socialisation, and the role of other men in the process of masculinity legitimisation is especially important as “(…) manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’” (2002: 52).

The fact that the majority of refugees do not have real possibilities to integrate into their host societies, and therefore decreased chances for understanding and decoding different social norms or verifying stereotypes about Europeans, was to terrorists’ advantage. And these groups of the most manipulated men might have become Daesh’s (or others) useful idiots, who were convinced or assured that sexual violence against women is acceptable, and that because they are men they have right to dispose of women’s bodies however they want.

Such an endeavor would have been easy to enforce, especially as such an assumption has also been shared in Europe since its early beginnings. According to the recent (2014) Fundamental Rights Agency report on violence against women, one out of three women in the European Union has suffered physical and/or sexual violence in their lives since the age of 15, and the vast majority of them were victims of men they already knew – husbands, partners, fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, colleagues – you name it.

Why then are the New Year’s Eve attacks so shocking and causing a huge public outcry while the suffering of millions of women – victims of their husbands, fathers, and brothers – is not an issue analysed in the media or discussed during coffee breaks and family dinners on a daily basis?

The reason is that domestic violence is perpetrated in the private sphere, while the attacks in Cologne and other cities took place in the public sphere. In cases of domestic violence in which the victim and perpetrator are relatives, male domination over his partner, daughter or sister seems to many to be natural, and violence against women is seen as an acceptable form of preserving male domination. Such a belief was recently acknowledged by the Toledo bishop who publicly said that the majority of domestic violence acts result from the fact that women do not obey their husbands and legitimated the right of men to punish women who object.

On the other hand, when acts of violence against women are perpetrated in the public sphere and the victim and perpetrator do not know each other, the narration differs. The social acceptance decreases obviously, but only to some degree. First of all, women are supposed to be “the perfect victims” – sober, not flirtatious, in the proper clothes (whatever this may mean) – in other words, she didn’t deserve to be raped. Secondly, the perpetrator should also represent some sort of ideal type – preferably he belongs to some marginalised social group, for example non-white, poorly educated, unemployed or refugee. Only such a combination guarantees public outcry and is taken really seriously.

In other cases when the perpetrators are, for example, German, Polish or Spanish men, sexual violence condemnation decreases. That is the case of Octoberfest, where the problem of sexual harassment against hundreds of women hasn’t been widely discussed. Similar dynamics characterise situations in which the perpetrator is a man with power (see the cases of the former director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn), where violence against women is replaced with the term “sex-scandal”.

This type of relativism and lack of consequence in sexual violence condemnation might have been used by terrorists who have managed to bring the “real rapist” and “innocent victim” phantasy to life. And this is how the anti-refugee discourse, to a large extent based on the fear of their sexuality, started to be acknowledged.

The original essay can be found here Dziennik Opinii Krytyka Polityczna

One thought on “War’s manly face: comments on the Cologne attacks

  1. Hi Katarzyna,

    thanks for the article. I consider myself to be a feminist and supporter of criticism of the capitalistic heteropatriarchy. But I have some objections to this text.
    First of all, I don’t think the terrorists were thinking of or would need the alleged “type of relativism and lack of consequence in sexual violence condemnation” in order to achieve their goal. It is because of the sheer mass of sexual harassment that the public is shocked. It also would have been shocked if the perpetrators would have been German, Polish or Spanish.

    This leads me to my second point and to explaining why I wrote “alleged” in the last paragraph. You wrote that there is a type of relativism and decrease in sexual violence condemnation with regard to the case of the Oktoberfest.
    In my opinion, that’s not true. It’s just a question of numbers: On last year’s Oktoberfest there have been 20 notifications of sexual harassment. And it’s an event that lasts for 14 days and has around six million visitors. New Year’s Eve in Cologne led to around 400 notifications of sexual harassment, and there were around 1000 people partying.
    What happend there is a new phenomenon and explains the public outcry. Comparing it to the Oktoberfest is the actual relativism.

    I think in order to be able to explain the events in Cologne we should take a deep look at religion. We all know that the image of women in Islam is problematic and that religion has always been used to legitimate (sexual) violence. You fittingly mentioned the bishop of Toledo, but unfortunately didn’t elaborate on the religious aspect. We won’t do women’s rights a favor if we block this out or neglect it.

    Best wishes,

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