Germany, Sweden, Finland apparently, and now India. Mobs of men have been sexually assaulting women in public everywhere it seems, taking advantage of public gatherings on festive occasions. It is about men, their sense of power and violence—that is obvious. Yet, in Europe, this act of criminality is being given a race and cultural colour, not surprisingly just when a wave of right-wing populist politics is sweeping that continent, mixing in with currents from the US.
Attacks on women by mobs in recent years have been reported since at least 2011, most shockingly in the midst of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt. On the day President Mohamed Morsi resigned following public protests in July 2013—on that day alone—there were 80 sexual assaults on women at Tahrir Square and the streets around it, according to Tahrir Bodyguard, an Egyptian group that rescues women from assault.
In particular, media attention focused on the sexual assault on a 19-year-old woman, an act of violence that was filmed during the inauguration of Morsi’s successor, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in 2014. Women were also assaulted by the army, and a photograph of one particular assault was published around the world.
The German mob assaults on New Year’s Eve, 2016, in the city of Cologne also caused outrage. Across Germany, according to The Washington Post, there were 1,200 sexual assaults, including 24 rapes, by a mob of 2,000 men, all of whom are described in media reports variously as Muslims and/or of North African or Arab origin. Most attacks took place in Cologne. North Rhine-Westphalia state’s interior minister Ralf Jaeger said 1,000 men were involved.
According to some commentators, there’s a common strand in the attacks in Egypt and those in Germany—that of religion. This theory goes that large groups of Muslim men deliberately target women in crowds for sexual attacks. A well-known advocate of this view is the German feminist Alice Schwarzer, who has written a book in German, titled The Shock–New Year’s Eve Night in Cologne.
Schwarzer, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, blames Islamists, whom she describes as “a Muslim who puts Sharia law above the rule of law and sees woman as inferior to men.” She says, “Islam is a belief, and Islamism is a political strategy—decidedly military in the case of the Islamic State, or simply an attitude by loose-knit Muslim groups who enjoy turning their frustration and unemployment into feelings of supremacy over the ‘infidels’ and who enjoy debasing women.”
Because the Cologne attacks have spurred a strong right-wing, racist reaction against immigrants and refugees, she is also quick to clarify her view: “The perpetrators on New Year’s Eve in Cologne weren’t ‘the Muslims’ or ‘the Arabs’. They were a specific species, namely Islamists. They’re the ones we must stop.”
But she adds, “People who live in Germany must respect democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and the freedom of religion. If they don’t, they have no right to be here.”
The problem with this very Eurocentric view is that it does not appear to be entirely thought through or backed by evidence: where’s the evidence the attackers were Islamists? Not only Muslim men attack. How would you explain the mobs of Bengaluru? Or for that matter the sexual attacks that take place every day across western nations?
The Bengaluru attacks by hundreds of men took place in some of the busiest parts of the city, such as M.G.Road. Ironically, the dangers of situating such attacks within the context of culture, race or religion, as Schwarzer does, comes out clearly in a reaction from an influential politician in Bengaluru.
G Parameshwara, home minister of Karnataka, said: “Unfortunately, what is happening is as I said, (on) days like new year, (at) Brigade Road, Commercial Street, M G Road, large number of youngsters gather. Youngsters who are almost like westerners, they try to copy the westerners not only in the mindset, but even the dressing.”
One distinction has to be made right away—while Schwarzer blames the alleged perpetrators, Parameshwara blames the victim, which clearly is a far more dangerous response. Yet, both Schwarzer and Parameshwara, influential voices in their own locations, look at these attacks in the context of race, religion and culture, rather than the sense of power and entitlement that comes with being men. Schwarzer blames Islamists; Parameshwara thinks it’s the evil West.
Women are subjected to sexual attacks in western countries, too, on New Year’s Eve. The one difference is that the western media will often depict these as acts of drunken revelry, a spillover of the pub culture.
I asked Nivedita Menon, author of Seeing Like A Feminist and professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, about her opinion. “The assumption that all these mobs are filled with non-white men I would like to be verified,” she said. “But there is a culture of impunity over sexual violence in the West. I see it as part of a larger global cultural impunity in sexual violence.” The Russian parliament, for instance, is considering decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence. That’s a country where, according to the BBC, 600,000 women face physical and verbal abuse at home and 14,000 die from injuries inflicted by husbands or partners each year.
This culture of impunity is also reflected in attitudes to race. In the US, for instance, swimmer Brock Turner of Stanford University was given a six-month jail-term last year for raping an unconscious woman and told he could be released after as little as three months if he behaved well.
By contrast, Cory Batey, also 19 years old, also a standout athlete (at Vanderbilt), also convicted for raping an unconscious woman, was told—also in 2016—that he must serve a mandatory sentence of 15-to-25 years. There was one difference: Turner is white, Batey is black.
Mob attacks and rapes are not sanctioned by race, religion or culture. But all play a role, as does class. Conversely, boundaries of civilized behaviour do not begin on the gentrified shores of Europe and its successor nations of North America. How we contextualize these problems will determine how we respond to sex attacks. We need to get the evidence and the context right because, at the end of the day, no one wants to ban Islam or skirts.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1