Some of my German students returning to the US from their holiday break told me firsthand about the frightening events that occurred on New Year’s Eve. One young woman said she was out with friends at a club and found themselves surrounded by 20 men, threatening them, some with knives. This happened not just in Cologne, but in Stuttgart, Bielefeld, Hamburg,… The most disturbing thing about these events is that they seem to have been planned by Muslim men from North Africa and the Middle East, some of them refugees who recently entered the country.
The German newspaper Die Welt reports that in Arab countries something called “taharrush gamea” is common. It means “coordinated sexual harassment” or sexual harassment planned and carried out by groups of men, ranging from molestation to rape. It has never before been found in Germany. Now it is.
In the wake of these events, the German press is trying to get a handle on what is behind all this. What is it like for women in their homelands? Die Presse from Austria interviewed four women from various parts of the Middle East. One woman from Iran recounted how at 16 she was accosted by a man on the street near her house who grabbed her breast. She ran home in tears but her family decided they wouldn’t take it to the police, because in all likelihood it would end up being worse for the victim than her attacker. A woman from Iraq said the best part about living in Austria was that she could walk around freely, without men constantly in her face, badgering her, demanding her cellphone number. In Baghdad she had to be home by 5 PM for her own safety. Others in IS-controlled Syria spoke of the fear of Islamist fighters killing them if they did not cover themselves with the hijab.
In short, these women are not free to live their lives. Fear follows them wherever they go even if they are encased in their prison clothing. Now women in Germany are afraid too. Sales of pepper spray are up. Right-wing protestors are in the streets. No one knows how it will end.