With Germany gearing up for the holiday season, many women fear another wave of sexual assaults similar to the last New Year's Eve in Cologne. The key is to speak out, says self-defense instructor Barbara Giason.
German security forces are still facing harsh criticism for their alleged failure to protect hundreds of women from being groped and molested during the last New Year's celebration in Cologne, with German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere testifying before an investigative committee earlier this week.
Even when there are no police officers around, there are ways for potential victims to react and for people around them to help, says Barbara Giason, who teaches teenagers how to respond to such attacks in numerous state schools across Switzerland. In an interview with DW on Saturday, she said it was also important to understand the patriarchal gender roles and their influence on both migrant and European youths.
DW: You are teaching self-defense in Swiss schools and helping young girls to learn how to respond when people are trying to grope or hurt them. At the same time you teach people how to overcome prejudice and reject gender stereotypes. How does that work?
I am really teaching both girls and boys, men and women, because they are facing the same problem. Women are not the only ones whose safety is threatened. You keep hearing this about women, about how they should take self-defense courses, but boys and men also do not know how to react in such situations.
Both boys and girls have the same issues – they want to be nice but they are being pushed into these gender roles, almost blackmailed into them. People tell them "you need to stay at home," or "as a man, you need to make a lot of money, otherwise you will never get a woman." These phrases are hammered into them. They cause this inequality.
What is the first lesson you teach to new students?
I start with the question: Where are my boundaries? How much of the surroundings belongs to me? How close can someone get to me? Are they allowed to touch me right away or do I keep a distance? Everyone should know what they are willing to permit and when it should stop. Can everybody touch me or not. Can I speak out or do I have to tolerate it? Because you do not need to tolerate it. The same goes for a young man – he does not need to tolerate it either.
My techniques can cause pain, but they don't require much strength. Then you have time to get away or scream. Any person can learn it, young or old, even the handicapped – it is all the same.
Are people showing more interest in your courses than before? Are Europeans today more scared, especially in the wake of the recent refugee crisis and incidents involving migrants?
There is definitely more interest now because people want to know how you are supposed to respond. It happens because there are people who used to live in a very patriarchal society. Our men here, good men in general, are pretty shocked that something like that could happen. But men also need to start speaking up and saying that such things will not be tolerated. And women need to learn how to make incidents known, scream, say what happened, so that men know if they need to step in. The responsibility is on everybody, the whole society. Women believe they should keep quiet because there might be more violence if they speak out. Because of that, men then get the impression that the issue is not that bad. Still, they do want to help.
There are activists who say that is wrong to focus on teaching women to protect themselves and that more attention must be given to stopping the abusers. What are your thoughts on that?
That is exactly right. These courses are for both genders. It always good to take self-defense lessons, to know that you can use the techniques in an emergency. I teach boys the same or similar moves, because they may also be attacked. Well-meaning men should stop the abuse when they hear something. When someone is hurling obscenities at women, they should react immediately, ask the attacker to stop.
I always say in my courses - whether it is to boys or girls, men or women - these things start in a very banal way. Any bad word you tolerate can be a stepping-stone for another attack.
Here in Germany, we had hundreds of sexual assaults at the New Year's Eve celebration in Cologne. What would you recommend to one of your students in a situation like that, in a crowd with people who are drunk or aggressive?
If you are in this situation where you are surrounded by people and things may be getting serious or violent, scream out if something happens. By doing so, you are informing people nearby, and it is the only way that the others can respond to that. There are good people everywhere, people who know when it is time to help.
Barbara Giason has worked as a self-defense instructor in Swiss schools since 2010.