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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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