Opinion: Suddenly, it′s about more than just male chauvinism | Lifestyle | DW | 08.03.2016
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Opinion: Suddenly, it's about more than just male chauvinism

After the New Year's Eve attacks on women in Cologne, DW's Sarah Hofmann has found herself forced to write about women as victims - something she never wanted to do.

Cologne, March 2016. 10:30 p.m. After a late-night reading by a prominent writer, I walk to the subway station alone. The streets are dark; the streetlights dim. Yet there are loads of people whose paths I will cross on the way. I stuff my hands into my coat pocket, gripping my cell phone tightly. I don't have pepper spray with me. I shiver. Is it just the cold?

Suddenly, it's there: the thoughts about New Year's Eve. Just one night, two months ago, that has changed so much for me. A night in which numerous women were sexually assaulted, harassed, groped. Since then, 471 reports of sexual assault have been filed at the Cologne's state prosecutor's office - on that one night alone.

Tectonic shift

Still today, the shock many women feel is deep. Me included. Until that night, I thought that in Germany we had long since passed the time in which women were spoken of as victims. That we could finally move on to the achievement of equal rights - something I wrote about last year at this time, on International Women's Day.

DW's Sarah Hofmann

DW's Sarah Hofmann

The situation has changed dramatically this year, however. The wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea, which had previously been met with empathy, rage and a feeling of helplessness are no longer something to be viewed from afar. The crises have arrived in Germany, along with the thousands of people fleeing them.

I don't mean only the attackers in Cologne, suspects who allegedly appeared to be men of a "North African or Arab ethnicity," as initial police reports stated. The description sparked a debate - parts of which were unspeakable - about "the Arab man" and about illegal "economic migrants" and quick deportations of "criminal foreigners." The debate overlooked, however, the legitimate question of how women are viewed and valued in many parts of the world, and which image of women young men in Germany should themselves hold.

Cracks in Germany's 'perfect world'

In speaking about women, I'm including here the nearly 350,000 women who are estimated by immigration authorities to have arrived in Germany over the last year. Many among them have experienced sexual violence. Some were systematically raped and trafficked by people smugglers along the route; others, mistreated by fellow refugees. They arrived unbelievably traumatized. And the violence continues in refugee housing - assaulted by others in the facilities, as well as by the personnel charged with their security.

This is just as shocking - if not more - than what happened to women in Cologne on New Year's Eve. Women - no matter their nationality or country of origin - have to feel they are safe in Germany. In refugee housing as well as out in public. And that's something that can't only be accomplished with a stronger police presence.

I don't want to feel as though I live in a secure gated community, with bodyguards stationed at every corner. Being able to walk down the street alone at night is a privilege that women in cities like Johannesburg or Delhi or Cairo can only dream about. Though our "heile Welt," or perfect world, in Germany has cracks in it, we need to patch them.

Women need to be active players

As we debate the ways in which we'd like women to be seen in our society - by both German men and the immigrants who arrive here - it's vital that women are viewed not only as victims but also as players in charge of their own destinies. Women who take their lives into their own hands.

Along those lines, I have to remind myself not to get hysterical. When we as women stop walking to the subway station alone, confidently and full of self-awareness, we are curtailing our own quality of life.

I don't need pepper spray in Cologne.

Maybe next year I'll write again about women at work. Perhaps about one woman who has made it out of the refugee home and into a German office. That would be lovely.

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