2016 didn’t start under the best auspices, especially in Cologne, Germany. We may not know every detail currently, but it sure seems that numerous women were assaulted, harrassed and even raped during the New Year’s festivities in the center of the German metropolis. More aggravating even is the all too credible observation that these assaults were committed in an organized manner and that most or even all of the perpetrators were described as ‘North African’ or ‘Arabian’. The backlash was understandably predictable: were European women under threat of ‘imported’ sexism and misogyny?
Putting the fact aside that right-wing populist jumped on the issue to confirm their prejudices: is there any credence to the idea that the cultural or religious background of immigrants or refugees makes them more likely to be sexist and misogynistic?
There clearly is a cultural pendant in sexism, but as always the picture is more complex than some would like. First of all: sexism researchers differentiate the concept of sexism, in a benevolent and hostile variant. We speak of benevolent sexism when people see women as different, but not necessarily inferior to men. Benevolent sexism is at play when women are described as weak, but more pure human beings, to the point that they’re considered naïve and therefore need the protection of men. Hostile sexists do see women as inferior, in the sense that they define women as devious and cunning. Benevolent sexists may put women on a pedestal, and they may simultaneously limit their freedoms, under the pretense of wanting to protect them. Hostile sexists may respect women in the sense that they see them as equals sexually, but see them as intrinsically different and sometimes even as intrisically malicious. Benevolent sexism is sometimes associated with domestic violence, but sexual violence against women in general is generally associated with hostile sexism.
So, are men from a Muslim background (because we all know they’re the ones who have been implied) more sexist, and if so, which kind of sexist specifically? That question is not easily answered: yes, there is more violence against women in Muslim countries than in Western countries. But there is also more violence against women in non-Muslim countries, such as South Africa or Mexico. Moreover, in countries such as India, where there’s a large Muslim minority population, the violence against women is equally prevalent among non-Muslims. What does this tell us?
First of all, it tells us that sexism may be incorporated in cultural values, but sexual violence is not only an outcome of such values. A 2014 UNDP report on sexual violence against women in South East Asia, a truly horrific read, shows that such violence is a very frequent occurrence, fairly regardless of religious background. And most horrifying is the finding that women endorse values that justify such violence, even more so than men. However, what this report also shows is that within cultures violence against women is strongly correlated with income, social status and degree of education. So, violence against women is not only an outcome of values.
What’s more is that such sexist values aren’t unambiguous. Returning to the Muslim minorities: according to the implied cultures, North African and Middle Eastern, women are not necessarily considered as inferior, but are considered as weak and needing protection. These cultures have values in place that order that women should be protected and respected, as they are more pure and the key to their families’ honour. In other words: a clear example of benevolent rather than hostile sexism. So, how does this add up with what happened in Cologne?
The crucial point is: these benevolent sexist values, that also have a protective function, however suffocating and oppressive they are for women, are reserved for ingroup women. In plain text: these values prescribe respect and protection for women who belong to the own groups. What this ‘own group’ is, depends on the context and can be categories such as one’s own family, clan, town, or even ethnicity. Conversely, women that are not part of the ingroups, can be met with hostile sexism, aggravated by a disconnection with majority culture and individual social-economic status.
To conclude: looking for explanations for the Cologne incidents exclusively in culture would be a gross oversimplification of matters. It’s much more likely that what happened has a lot to do with the societal cleavages that have appeared in Western Europe along ethnical and cultural lines. Polarization and a failure to integrate groups of migrants has given rise to a new proletariat of mostly Muslim descent. And as always, some of the angry, young men from groups who feel disadvantaged engage in counterproductive behaviours, self-fulfilling prophecies and confirming prevalent stereotypes. And the most extreme and marginal of them do so by rebelling against everything majority culture holds dear, such as a firm stance against anti-semitism, acceptance of LGBT rights, and an equal position for women. They attack Jews and gays, they consider free and autonomous women as fair game, in order to distance themselves and scorn the society they feel has scorned them. What happened is most likely an example of them versus us, in which empathy is reserved for the respective ‘us’. And let me make this very clear: this is by no means a justification, but merely an explanation.
Women, all women, must be able to live their lifes without threat, violence and oppression. That should be a priority for every modern society, I would vehemently argue. And the best way to ensure that in this specific context is twofold: firstly and most importantly, sexist values need to be addressed as such and refuted through education and policy. However, there’s also a second pathway necessary: society needs to ensure that men such as the perpetrators in Cologne view all women as their ‘sisters’, i.e. their ingroup members. I have argued it before: Europe must start a policy of inclusion, better sooner than later, because fragmented societies can only lead to further disaster.