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More than 500 criminal charges are filed after reports of sexual abuse, thefts in Cologne on New year's Eve

Joyce Marie Mushaben: West has turned blind eye to poor treatment of women in trading partners

Editor’s Note: Joyce Marie Mushaben is Curators’ Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN) —  

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Western states optimistically assumed that protests against authoritarian regimes across Northern Africa would result in a democratic “fourth wave.” But few could have expected the chain of events that would lead to over 2 million refugees crossing the Mediterranean in open boats, seeking safe haven from their own failed states – or a series of New Year’s flashpoints that intensified a national debate that even drew the attention of a U.S. presidential candidate.

On New Year’s Eve, marauding groups of “north-African looking” men reportedly surrounded women in public spaces in the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg and Frankfurt, grabbing their purses, cell phones and intimate body parts. So far, some 500 victims have filed robbery and sexual assault complaints. Despite initial reports that “all was peaceful,” we now know that Cologne’s police force had turned down reinforcements from Duisburg, and that officers on duty that night were so overwhelmed by the crowd that they reportedly could not even rescue one of their own female undercover agents, who was also allegedly assaulted.

Joyce Marie Mushaben
Joyce Marie Mushaben

At a subsequent press conference, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker suggested women “keep an arm’s length” between themselves and unknown men. This seems inappropriate advice from a woman who was herself stabbed in the throat by a native-born neo-Nazi two months earlier for supporting refugee integration.

North-Rhine Westphalia’s interior minister, meanwhile, railed against bands of “organized North African men humiliating defenseless women with impudent sexual attacks.” A right-wing blogger insisted that “the crazy chancellor has allowed millions of male, sexually starved asocial illegals from the Middle East and Africa to come to Germany.”

“Blond German women are, according to the Quran, ‘prey-women’ who can be abused according to your whims or enslaved,” the blogger wrote.

Defenseless women? Judging by this type of account, you would think the only people congregating around the main train stations in Cologne, Hamburg and Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve were dark-haired, foreign men, blond German women and a few police unable to manage the crowd. But why didn’t large groups of German men come to the rescue? And why are there so few video images of the perpetrators among hundreds of selfie-loving iPhone owners?

The truth is that politicians have known for years that women also face higher rates of sexual assault at the hands of drunken men during Germany’s world-famous Oktoberfest and pre-Lenten Carneval celebrations. That raises the question as to why officials have waited until now to revise rape laws that still expect women to prove they have actively resisted their attackers. It also makes one wonder why officials were not just as concerned about reported rapes and assaults occurring in the refugee reception centers.

Right-wing extremists linked to far-right organizations such as Pegida and the AfD reject policies that would really strengthen gender rights in Germany, such as equal pay, a 30% female quota for corporate boards and tougher laws against domestic abuse, even as they shamelessly exploit the New Year’s debacle to legitimize their own racist agendas “to protect our women.”

But if protecting women is the goal, then shouldn’t there have been a little more outrage over the report from the Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women, and Youth that 25% of all German women will experience some form of domestic violence during their lifetime? Dorothea Moesch, who operates a center for migrants, needy locals and their children in Westerfilde, received an anonymous phone threat in June declaring: “You’re going to burn witch, just like all of the other c—.” Or when Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a refugee camp in Heidenau, anti-migration protesters held up signs calling her a slut and an “enemy of the German state.”

So much for wanting to protect German women.

Arch-feminist Alice Schwarzer described the event in Cologne as a “gang-bang party … 1,000 men who were acting as if they were in Tahir Square in Cairo, dreaming of being heroes like their brothers in the civil wars of North Africa and the Middle East.”

As reprehensible as I find these assaults on women, along with police chief failures to have taken additional security precautions given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I think Schwarzer is right, but for the wrong reason. Because while she stresses “misplaced tolerance” in her country, I believe the bigger problem rests with European and American tolerance of violence against women everywhere else.

For decades, Western leaders have pursued lucrative trade deals with authoritarian leaders ranging from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to the Saudi royals, selling them weapons, automobiles and luxury goods while ignoring U.N. and EU gender mainstreaming mandates. Indeed, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia next week, the very country whose Wahhabism gave rise to Osama bin Laden and initially tolerated extremist Sunni formations like al Qaeda.

Merkel is directly involved in negotiating with Turkey to secure its external border while also providing decent reception conditions for asylum-seekers. She asked at the recent Christian Social Union party convention that she be “given the time to try these things out.” I would sooner trust the Chancellor’s cool-headed, systematic approach to the challenges posed by the mass influx of refugees than the flash-in-the-pan cries urging her to pull up the drawbridge and slam the gates of Fortress Europe. She is the only one who actually has a national integration plan, and who still believes the European Union has a special responsibility to ensure equal treatment, solidarity and human rights.

Ultimately, whatever solution Merkel proposes, one thing should be crystal clear: The more the leaders of Western democratic states ignore the brutal, sexist treatment of women in other countries, the sooner it will come back to haunt all of us on our own turf.

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