New Year’s Eve resolutions: Respect the Bodily Autonomy of Western Women, Migrants and Refugees

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 8 March 2016

Gea Meijers, YouthSpeak March

While the coming of the New Year is meant to be a happy, colorful, warm celebration, one of this year’s biggest New Year’s stories were the riots that included mass-scale sexual harassment in Cologne, Germany. It took a week before the riots became news, but then it really hit a nerve among people. The reports spoke of at least hundred women being groped by a mob of possibly thousand men, which were described as immigrants including refugees, since the crowd had a predominantly Arab-Northern African look. It made headlines across Europe, crossing over national borders, as it led to a debate on the safety of women in a situation in which Europe is dealing with an increasing number of refugees.

It was an unexpected riot, but one that uncovered a strong tension within European societies, which has not yet been publicly debated. It was even so unexpected that the Cologne police had not deployed enough police force to manage the celebration, which had led to the situation getting more and more out of hand. What made this riot stand out was the fact that it seemed to be orchestrated by a set of informal leaders who incited other men to attack ‘German’ women in sexually inappropriate ways. Some rapes and thefts were also reported. The attacks were allegedly planned, and if true, will be the first such case in Germany; of intentional and planned harassment.

​Interestingly while the men were quickly defined as ‘foreigners’, not much was said about the identity of the female victims. It called forth an image of the streets being taken over by foreign men attacking Western civilization that at least in ideology claims to protect women from sexual harassment in any sphere, in particular the public one.

The riots in Cologne were in the news across Europe. It even became a topic within the WhatsApp group of the IHEYO Committee. The public discussion focused on the treatment of refugees and migrants in Europe and their attitude towards women’s bodily rights compared to the attitudes of Western men. It is fair to say that if it would have been predominantly men who looked ‘Caucasian’ the discussion would have been different. Maybe it would have not gotten so much attention. Is it possible to conceive of a large group of Caucasian-looking men who stem from European families that have lived there for generations coming together and fueling each other to grope women and try to rip of clothes? Would that happen? I leave this to the reader to answer.

Gender equality in Europe and the rest of the world

While people in Europe may express proudly that European values are about gender equality and respect for women’s bodies, there are also many violations taking place daily at interpersonal level, on streets, in the work space and in public policy. It is true that compared to other regions, gender equality and women’s empowerment has progressed more. However behind closed doors, women do not experience drastically less violence in Europe compared to other regions. A big survey done in 2012 among randomly selected adult women (15 years and older) in member states of the European Union found that around 8 % of them reported being raped, on average. It is in particular the women in Northern and Western states that report rape, with 14 % of the women in the Netherlands, 12 % in France compared to less than 4 % in Poland. This comes as no surprise since rape is still a taboo, especially in the more conservative states[1]. If one includes physical violence and other forms of sexual harassment, this survey found that no less than around one out of three adult women in the European Union reported having experienced a form of sexual or physical violence[2]. This number comes close to worldwide data on violence against women. The World’s Women Report 2015 published by the United Nations found that: “Around one third of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence, peaking during women’s reproductive years in both developed and developing countries.” (p. xiii)[3].

People respond much stronger to violence that takes place in the public sphere compared to what happens in the private sphere; it is much harder to control what people do privately. Thus one might conclude that while there are still a lot of individuals having great difficulty respecting the rights of women to their own body in Europe and elsewhere, Europeans hold very dear the value of respecting women’s rights in public and therefore the outrage to what had happened in Cologne is only normal. While this was part of the outrage, it provides only a partial answer. There are other gross public threats to women’s bodily autonomy in Europe, but they do not receive the same amount of attention. Politicians in Poland and Spain have been working towards criminalizing abortion again in these countries. While the Spanish conservative government that proposed changes have been elected out of power – thus the danger of these plans turning reality for women have passed there – in Poland the newly elected government is very determined to criminalize abortion. Abortion is for many instances illegal, but not punishable for the woman. The Law and Justice party wants to now criminalize abortion. Has there been a massive outcry in Europe? Does it reach the headlines like the riots did? I have not seen many reports while such proposed policy measurements are much more draconian than a set of men groping women. There is nothing right about sexually harassing a woman, but making illegal abortions even more illegal, risks the health of many women. It is estimated that there are 50,000 illegal abortions preformed in Poland each year by doctors who use outdated tools and charge exorbitant prices for the procedure[4]. This will only increase and become worse if the plans will be adopted into law.

The opposition to allowing women to decide over their own bodies is not only prevalent in Poland and Spain. In 2013, a European Union parliamentary report on “sexual and reproductive health and rights” named after its initiator Estrela, that asserted that access to abortion is a human right among other issues, was narrowly rejected following massive protest from conservative parties and associations across Europe.

Xenophobia on the rise in Europe

The situation for women in European is probably better compared to other regions, however there is a lot of work still ahead in protecting the rights of women to their own bodies, also in terms of protecting them from sexual violence by Western men. If sexual violence is not uncommon in Europe, why did the riots in Cologne draw so much attention? I think it was not so much motivated from a genuine wish to foster and create safe spaces for all women. This is not to say that the public was not outraged by the way the women were treated, irrespective of the ethnic background of the men. There were articles that reported on the experiences of women in streets, not only at the New Year’s Eve in Cologne, but also about day-to-day incidents of harassment in European cities. However these reports did not make the headlines of the public attention and debate; the major focus was on how to treat migrants and refugees. And in terms of public actions to take, it was not a question of how to improve women’s rights in general in our societies, but how to discipline migrant communities and refugees into adopting ‘Western’ or universal values (depending on one’s point of view). In addition, several news reports focused on exploring whether the actions of this group of men represented migrants and refugees in general and if such questions as ‘should refugees be deported or detained if they are harassing/raping a woman?’ are not racist in itself.

The tension that was laid bare with the riots was one of increasing xenophobia within European societies. The member states of the European Union have been dealing with what its politicians and a significant part of society considers a crisis. For some years there has been a growing stream of refugees and migrants from Northern Africa and the Middle East to Spain, Italy and Greece. In the past half year Europe has witnessed something new in the shape of traveling refugees mainly from Syria that arrive in boats at Greece and go by bus, train and foot through Eastern European states with a dream to finally arrive in Germany (other dream states are Sweden for example, though Germany is seen as the ultimate destination). It has created images of a dead toddler on a beach, groups of refugees camping at borders, train stations full of refugees that are not allowed to travel further, among others. There is a lot of sympathy and willingness among people in Europe to help and welcome refugees, but there is also a lot of resistance. It seems the resistance is taking the upper hand believing the news.

The resistance towards refugees is not only because of the idea that the European states cannot fulfill the care burden to accommodate many refugees. The fact that many refugees (and migrants) come from a Muslim background is problematic for a part of the European public that sees in Islam a threat to Western values. In the months before the Cologne riots, the German Chancellor Merkel showed a humane side by declaring that Germany will do its best to welcome the incoming refugees, while working on a quota system to spread the refugees throughout Europe and giving money to Turkey in an attempt to reduce the influx. The riots turned out as an occasion to express the discomfort with the humane approach. Right now Germany’s ruling political party has moving away from its original stance, in line with what many other European states are doing: closing or limiting border exchange, trying to make it less attractive for refugees to come, etc. leaving Merkel to reorient her initial approach.

Do new Muslims threaten European societies? Are they a threat to gender equality and women’s bodily autonomy? These are complex questions. Many data will confirm that women in Middle Eastern Islamic states are worse off compared to Europe with respect to their human rights. The number of violations under Islamic rule is abundant: child marriages, Malala the Pakistani girl who was shot for going to school, Sharia law, just to name a few. Clearly there are cultural differences and in that light it is a good idea openly discuss this and communicate what is acceptable, in a situation new people arrive in a country. Measures like educating incoming refugee men on how to treat women for example are a very good initiative[5]; it is happening in Norway and Belgium. But cultural tensions should not be instrumentalized for mobs and policy-makers to attack refugees and migrants and to take restrictive measures like detaining refugees over a longer period. Any measure taken should pass the test of being respectful to individual human rights.

There is a case to make as society which is trying to devise policy to deal with cultural differences in approaches to women. We should understand particular but also universal violations towards women’s bodies (and in much lesser degree men’s bodies) and fight them. Sexual violence is something that men and women from all kind of ethnicities make themselves guilty of, and none of it is tolerable.

[1] See for the references and more data on gender equality and the protection of women’s rights in Europe: http://eige.europa.eu/gender-statistics/
[2]There is also data collected (http://eige.europa.eu/gender-statistics/) on the number of rape convictions in European countries, though the numbers are incomplete and of course many people do not go to the police when they have become a victim. It does show that it is predominantly, but not only, women that experience rape. For example in Germany in 2013, 350 men were victims in rape cases compared to 7150 women, which is around 2000 % more than the number of men. It might be that the actual number of male victims is higher because there is a bigger taboo on males experiencing rape, due to which they might be unreported.

Gea Meijers is a Humanist from the Netherlands. She was the founding president of IHEYO (2002-05) in its present form, and currently serves on IHEYO Advisory Board. 

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the IHEU.


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