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After Cologne, we can't let the bigots steal feminism

Why can't we always take sexual assault as seriously as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators?

In a perverse sort of way, it's progress. After months of dog-whistle xenophobia, European authorities have finally started to treat migrants as they would treat any other citizen. They have achieved this by choosing not to make a fuss when migrants are accused of raping and assaulting women.

On New Year's Eve in Cologne, Germany, hundreds of men, almost all of reportedly  'Arabic and North African' appearance and including many asylum seekers, viciously attacked women who were celebrating in the central plaza, robbing and groping and tearing off clothes. At least one rape complaint has been filed. The police and the press were initially slow to react, and the Mayor of Cologne reacted to eventual protests by suggesting that women should adopt a code of conduct in public and keep an ‘arm’s length’ distance between themselves and strange men. 

This is not the first time a European city administration has responded to an outbreak of sexual violence by blaming the women. It is the first time in recent history that the right-wing press has not joined in the condemnation of these wanton strumpets who dare to think they might be able to have a good time without worrying what ‘invitation’ they’re sending to men. Instead, the right wing blames… liberals. Who apparently caused all this by daring to suggest that refugees should be able to come to Europe in safety. 

It'd be great if we could take rape, sexual assault and structural misogyny as seriously every day as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators.The attacks in Cologne were horrific. The responses - both by officials and by the armies of Islamophobes and xenophobes who have jumped at the chance to condemn Muslim and migrant men as savages - have also been horrific. Cologne has already seen violent protests by the far-right anti-migrant organisation Pegida, a group not previously noted for its dedication to progressive feminism. Angela Merkel has responded by tightening the rules for asylum seekers, but for many commentators, it’s not enough.

It’s a miracle! Finally, the right wing cares about rape culture! Finally, all over the world, from Fox News to 4chan, a great conversion has taken place and men who previously spent their time shaming, stalking and harassing women are suddenly concerned about our rights! And all it took was a good excuse to bash migrants and Muslims and tell feminists they don’t know what’s good for them. 

You know what has never yet prevented sexual violence? Unbridled racism.

This theft of feminist rhetoric in the name of imperialism and racism has been going on for centuries. It’s been an active part of the political conversation in the West since 2001. In the week since the Cologne attacks have been reported in the global press, a great many men have taken it upon themselves to educate me and other feminists on the point that only Muslim men are sexist. They have chosen to do this by sending orchestrated waves of abuse and sexual slurs to any woman whose opinion they dislike. Nobody has to pass a self-awareness test to go on Twitter. 

Personally, I just love it when random men on the internet tell me what my feminism should like, because gosh, you know, this whole resisting oppression thing is really hard sometimes and it’s great to have people who know what they’re talking about take over for me so I can get on with the ironing. These people have repeatedly demanded that I ‘condemn’ the attacks in Cologne, which is a lazy way of implying that somebody doesn't really care about an issue.

So let me be clear: sexual violence is never, ever acceptable. Not for cultural reasons. Not for religious reasons. Not because the perpetrators are really angry and disenfranchised. There can be no quarter for systemic misogyny. And if we’re serious about that, there’s not a country or culture on earth that won’t have to take a long, hard look at itself. I stand with the many, many Muslim, Arab, Asian and immigrant feminists organising against sexism and misogyny within and beyond their own communities. Nobody seems to have thought to ask them how best to deal with systemic sexual violence - even though attacks on Muslim women have increased since the terrorist attacks in Paris last year.

The sensible thing to do in response to the Cologne attacks would be to call, as many German feminists are doing, for a far more rigorous attitude to rape and sexual assault across Europe. Instead, the solution on the table seems to be to clamp down on migration. That fits in with the shibboleth that only savage, foreign men and hardened criminals rape and abuse women - despite the fact that most rapes, in Germany and elsewhere, are committed by people known to the victim, and migrants have not been shown to be more or less sexually aggressive than any other group. As usual, white supremacist patriarchy only concerns itself with women’s safety and women’s dignity when rape and sexual assault can be pinned on cultural ‘outsiders’. 

Saying ‘sexism is also part of Western culture’ does not mean that the experience of women in the West is exactly the same as the experience of women in Middle Eastern dictatorships and war zones. Do you know why that is? Can you guess? It’s because the world is not divided into ‘things that are exactly the same as each other’ and ‘things that are total opposites.’ 

I actually can’t believe I’m having to explain this right now. I thought we covered this in kindergarten. Those of us who have moved beyond that level can, if we really try hard, understand that it’s not either ‘sexism is exclusively practised by Muslim men’ and ‘sexism is exactly the same everywhere.’ This is what we call a ‘false dichotomy’ when we get to big-kid school. 

The oppression of women is a global phenomenon because patriarchy is a global phenomenon. It’s embedded in the economic and social structures of almost every nation and community on earth. Sexism and misogyny, however, look different across boundaries of culture and religion, as well as across divides of race and class and between generations. This is not a complicated thing to understand. I’m really trying not to be patronising. But a lot of people are behaving like vicious children over this issue, so if you’re not one of them, I hope you understand why right now I wish I could put half the Internet on time out in a nice safe room where they can scream and break things without hurting themselves or anyone else.

And there’s something else I’ve noticed, too.

 For all that these people claim to hate 'Islamic' sexual violence, it seems to fascinate them. In the past three years, I’ve lost count of the white men - and it is almost always white men- who have emailed, tweeted and sent me doctored pictures sharing their graphic fantasies in which feminist harpies like me are stoned to death, fucked to death, genitally mutilated, whipped, burned and gang-raped - not by them of course. By those awful Muslims. There seems to be an almost erotic fascination with the rhetoric of sexual violence these men associate with Muslims - it's so awful that they have to concentrate really hard on the details and maybe save some screenshots to contemplate later in private. 

I’ll be blunt. I think some people out there are very excited by their conception of ‘Islamic’ violence against women. It allows them to enjoy the spectacle of women being brutalised and savaged whilst convincing themselves that it’s only foreign, savage men who do these things. If hearing that makes you angry, if it makes you want to smash my bitch face in and tell me I’m a whore who deserves to be raped to death by ISIS, then congratulations, you’ve just proved my point. 

The point is that misogyny knows no colour or creed, and perhaps it’s time we did something about that. We’re used to a society where a basic level of everyday sexism, sexual violence and assault is accepted. So if you're saying this act of violence isn’t entirely different from all of those, and if you’re saying that refugees should be treated the same as European citizens, you must be saying that everyone should get a free pass to treat women like walking meatbags, right?

Wrong. It’s time to take rape, sexual assault and structural misogyny as seriously every day as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators. That means that, yes, refugees must learn to respect women as human beings. Citizens, too, must learn to respect women’s agency and autonomy. Men and boys of every faith and none must learn that they are neither entitled to women’s bodies nor owed to our energy and attention, that it is not okay, ever, to rape, to assault, to abuse and attack women, not even if your ideology says it’s okay. That goes for the men’s rights activists, the anti-feminists and fanatical right-wingers much as it does for religious bigots. 

If we want to hold up Europe as a beacon of women’s rights, that’s fantastic. Let’s make it happen. If we’re suddenly a continent with a zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence and ritualised misogyny, let’s seize that energy. Let’s see real investment by the state and individuals in holding aggressors to account and supporting victims. It’s easier to pin misogyny on cultural outsiders than it is to accept that men everywhere must do better - but any other attitude is rank hypocrisy.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue