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No, feminists aren’t scared to write about the Cologne attacks

The people who asked why I hadn't written on the attacks weren't really interested in my opinion - they wanted me to say what they wanted to hear.

One of the occupational hazards of writing a column – apart from a slow but inevitable ballooning of the ego – is being told off for all the columns you haven’t written. There is a certain species of person who enjoys emailing columnists, brandishing how they haven’t written about Subject X as evidence of a) their moral shortcomings; b) an establishment cover-up; or c) rank hypocrisy. The model is columnist-as-Pez-dispenser: issuing regular and precisely calibrated condemnations of every evil in the world. Sometimes I feel like Bridget Jones at the book launch, where she starts by praising Salman Rushdie and ends up having to be nice about Jeffrey Archer to seem even-handed. (“Violence against men . . . is bad as well!”)

Which brings me to a question I have been asked recently: why haven’t I written about the Cologne attacks? Women reported a string of sexual assaults in the German city on New Year’s Eve, with many of the perpetrators said to be of “Arab or North African origin”. The story became inextricably linked to Europe’s debate about refugees.

There is now no doubt something awful happened that night. On 18 January, a 26-year-old Algerian asylum-seeker became the first person to be arrested over the sexual assaults; nearly a dozen other men have been arrested on charges of robbery. However, not all recent claims of migrant violence have stood up to scrutiny: a 13-year-old girl who claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Middle Eastern” migrants later retracted the story, saying she had invented it to avoid punishment for skipping school.

This fuzziness was my initial reason for not wading in. The reports were sketchy, in a language I abandoned after GCSEs half a lifetime ago, and from the start it was unclear if the attacks were perpetrated by existing migrants, new refugees, or even German citizens of Arab or North African origin. Besides, what did I have to offer beyond a straightforward condemnation?

As a feminist, I am opposed to all sexual harassment. It is a crude but effective weapon for making women feel that they are not welcome in public spaces and in public life more generally; I’ve been writing on and off for five years about internet abuse and how that puts off women from participating in discussions online.

Yet, for many, that simply won’t do. It is not enough to say that misogyny comes in many forms, and is depressingly ­universal across cultures and history. We have to cordon off the Cologne attacks; erect a little white tent around the crime scene and give thanks that we are safely outside it. Ah, how blissful it is, here on the outside, where the person most likely to kill a woman is her intimate partner, and where 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped every year.

And that brings me to the other reason I didn’t want to write about the Cologne attacks. All the people who piously enquired as to whether I, as a feminist, had “anything to say” about them didn’t really care whether I did or not. They wanted me to say what they wanted to hear: that Muslims are uniquely sexist, and that letting in refugees from Muslim-majority countries will mean rolling back women’s rights and importing the worst excesses of sharia law to the streets of Coventry. Unless Western liberals wake up, Islamists will be chopping off hands outside Pret A Manger by 2018.

To put it politely, this is not the framing in which any reasonable conversation about women’s rights can happen. First, the terms are too vague: is the problem Muslims (all one billion of them)? Or men from specific countries? Or just “brown men” or “foreigners”? Without identifying the problem, there is little hope of a solution.

Then there is the musty undertone of paternalism mixed with white supremacy. When Dylann Roof stormed a historically black church in South Carolina, one of his grievances was that “you rape our women, and you’re taking over our country”. This formulation – “our women” – was also used by Tommy Robinson, formerly of the English Defence League, after the New Year’s Eve attacks. Reread the commentary on Cologne and count how much concern is expressed for migrant women, shackled for life to these attackers, or for the families that unaccompanied male migrants have left behind to live in poverty. You won’t find much. In this formulation, the problem is not that certain men are misogynist; it’s that the targets of their misogyny belong to someone else. To me, the unspoken coda to “You rape our women” is always “. . . and that’s our job”.

You can see this most clearly in the rhetoric of the self-described men’s rights activists, whose usual response to allegations of sexual assault is disbelief. (Their websites are full of accusations that women routinely lie about rape.) And yet, in the case of Cologne, they have become instant converts to #ibelieveher. Why? Because this allows them implicitly to reproach Western feminists for not seeming grateful enough to men for allowing them the freedoms they currently enjoy. In this way, women’s ability to walk safely in public is cast not as a fundamental human right, but as a special privilege, nobly granted to them by European men.

At the women’s charity where I volunteer, there is a poster that says: “She’s someone’s daughter, sister, mother.” All the qualifiers are crossed out, leaving the simple statement: “She’s someone.” Each of the women attacked in Cologne was someone. What matters is not that “they” attacked “our” women, but that the patriarchy and male violence endemic across the world took a particular and extreme form that night in Germany. And so I parry the accusation of hypocrisy against me with one of my own: if your interest in misogynist violence starts and ends with Cologne, you don’t really care about women at all.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder