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Berlin and Beyond: #MeToo, German style

Tamsin Walker
October 19, 2018

From the outset, the German response to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault was noted for its quiet. Tamsin Walker asks how that has changed a year on from its arrival.

Tamsin Walker holding an ice cream with a #MeToo sign on it
Image: DW/T. Walker

#MeToo German style

Living, as I do, with my three youngest girls, I hear the words "me too" a lot. Though at the moment, their chanting of the refrain is usually in response to questions about who might like an ice cream or jelly sweet, I wonder how long it will be before time before they're using it in the context of men, the search to understand how the sexes interact and the tangled mess that is gender imbalance.

For that is what the #MeToo  movement in Germany has, in part, come to signify. It has not brought down a slate of sexually abusive public figures and highlighted others who have been granted immeasurable power. Far from it. Here, it has been quietly ponderous, accusing just one film director, and becoming bundled up into a broader debate on inequality between the sexes.

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A debate, let it be said, that needs to be had. For this is a country that lags behind most of Europe on the gender pay gap and the number of women in managerial positions. It's a country where there are now fewer female MPs than at any time since 1998, and where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), has publicly decried efforts to level the playing field between men and women as "equality totalitarianism."

Nine men in suits
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer's decision to appoint an all-male team to lead his ministry was met with outrage from his criticsImage: picture alliance/dpa/Bundesministerium des Innern für Bau und Heimat

But it is also a country where according to a 2017 YouGov survey, almost one in two women are victims of sexual harassment and where the majority of citizens would like to see the issue on the school curriculum.

Cannonball in the mist

I doubt though, that we're about to see a rush on syllabus rewriting. And that's missing an opportunity. Not only because a recent poll conducted by German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel suggests the majority of the country's women have not noticed a seismic, or even significant shift in patterns of sexual harassment since #Metoo appeared on their social media channels, but because right now, it feels as if we've managed to push a huge rusty cannonball partway up a hill, only to leave it there in the fog.

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As it waits to be shoved on up or roll back down, the gray area in which it sits fills with conflicting voices. In the past year, I've spoken to women who welcome #MeToo as a solution to being sexually objectified, to others who don't. To those who have retrospectively called into question old flirtations, to mothers all too willing to excuse their sons' misdeeds.

A woman in a demonstration holds up a sign reading "We are angry"
Large-scale protests like this one in October 2017 have not become a regular thingImage: Imago/Bildgehege

I've heard women say hysteria discredits real crime, and I've listened in on conversations about how the ways of old are being overcorrected, creating a whole new set of unforgiving stereotypes in which as one girl put it, she has to justify her wish to cook a meal for her boyfriend.

And then there are the men themselves. Since last October, I attended my first ever parents' evening — and I have attended many — at which men outnumbered women, but I've also come across fathers who still think looking after their own kids is babysitting, men who don't want to engage with the issue at all and those who were enlightened to begin with but who have become wary of saying the wrong thing in the presence of women.

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There is a lot of fog around #MeToo and gender equality in Germany. I'd like to think it will have lifted by the time my youngest daughters have outgrown jelly sweets and are starting to make their own way in the world. But I fear it's too dense for that. My hope, in that case, is that they will be part of the generation that manages to roll the rusty old cannonball to the very top of the hill and push it over the edge.

In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

Trailer: Berlin and Beyond