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A kiss for your tie? Why Carnival kicks off with gender power games

Women take charge of men on the Thursday before Carnival, cut off their ties and give them a kiss. It's a tradition that hails from an era when women's rights were non-existent.

It's a kind of unofficial holiday in the Rhineland region of Germany. The party starts at 11:11 a.m. on the dot, and the pubs and streets burst with costumed revelers, alcohol and kitschy folk music known as "Schlager."

Maintaining your personal space is not exactly an option; close bodily contact with strangers is just as much a part of Carnival as music and beer. People link arms and sway to the Schlager, or do the "Stippeföttche," a traditional dance that involves rubbing rear ends together. Strangers "bützen" ("smooch") and touch each other up.

A costumed couple kiss during a Carnival celebration, Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/F. Von Erichsen

Smooching is called "bützen" in the local dialect

But now, since the attacks on women on New Year's Eve 2015, erotic innuendos among strangers have taken on a new connotation for many women. Incidences of sexual harassment occurred in many cities that night, but the situation was particularly severe in Cologne - which is also the epicenter of Carnival.

The police, not only in Cologne but also in neighboring Bonn and Dusseldorf, have promised to keep a close eye on the situation during Carnival - especially when it comes to incidents of sexual harassment and men who won't take no for an answer.

It all started with laundry women

Weiberfastnacht - the Thursday before Carnival Monday and the official start of the Carnival weekend - is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

In the Middle Ages, upper-class woman were allowed to throw their manners out the window on this day, which was dubbed "the drinking day for dear women."

The Beuel Ladies' Committee is pictured in the year 1900, Copyright: gemeinfrei

A group of rebels? The Beuel Ladies' Committee is pictured in the year 1900

In the 18th century, some convents even recognized the anything-goes tradition and the nuns were permitted to feast, gamble and dance until the wee hours of the morning.

In the 19th century, a group of washerwoman in Beuel near Bonn, around 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) south of Cologne, laid the foundation for the present-day Weiberfastnacht celebrations.

Back then, the washerwomen had to work 16 hours a day - not only for the high-society men who could afford it, but they also had to scrub their own husbands' dirty laundry so that they could go to Carnival parties in nearby Cologne in clean shirts. Their wives had to stay at home to work and tend to the children.

Storm the city hall, chop off the ties

In 1824, the washerwomen had finally had enough. They ditched their work and met in a pub to complain about their husbands. Obviously, they weren't just sipping tea and coffee.

They founded the "Beuel Ladies' Committee" and proceeded to storm the city hall in Beuel, claiming authority for a day. The tradition stuck and Bonn-Beuel became an important Carnival hub.

Word of what the women in Beuel had done spread quickly throughout the Rhineland and city halls were stormed in many other cities and villages as well.

As a symbol of revoking the power of the men the women started chopping off their ties, which they collected like trophies. Of course, since the tradition is all in good fun, the men don't go away empty-handed, but get a "Bützchen" - a smooch - in return. In this ritual, it's the woman who chooses who she's willing to kiss.

Cutting off a tie during a Carnival celebration, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/F.v. Erichsen

Men should only wear old ties on Weiberfastnacht

Women won't give up Carnival traditions

Despite the negative events of New Year's Eve 2015, the tie-cutting, Bützchen-giving tradition is something many women in the Rhineland don't want to miss out on.

"We don't want our Carnival fun to be taken away from us," Nina Probst from the "Old Beuel Ladies' Committee from 1824" told DW. "In over 190 years of Carnival tradition in Beuel, there have been times in which women have learned to deal with difficult situations."

"For us, Carnival is a happy, colorful celebration together," said Probst. "That's why we're appealing to everyone to watch out for each other so that we can peacefully celebrate together."

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