A strong show of Western justice is only response to sex-attack gangs in Germany
Published 08/01/2016 | 02:30
As a young woman, I feared for my personal safety on at least three separate occasions.
The first was when I was 17 and travelling on a tube (for the first time) in London (also for the first time) when a man grabbed my breasts and genital area with a sustained, wicked gratuitousness before exiting at the next stop.
I didn't know then that what had happened was a sexual assault, even if it was at "the lower end of the scale". But you don't have the words or comprehension at 17: mortified and in tears, I convinced myself that's just what happens to girls.
The next incident happened some years later in New York (where I was then living) when a taxi driver, who presumed I didn't know my route, tried to bring me home in the early hours via a road I knew led to an empty industrial park.
Terrified, and after having repeatedly given him specific directions, we had a ferocious row which resulted in me being ejected from the taxi - I considered that outcome a lucky escape.
The third incident occurred in Carcassonne, the picturesque town in the south of France.
Travelling alone, as I love to do, I was pursued in broad daylight for almost 20 minutes by an Arabic-speaking man who launched a sleazy, verbal sexual tirade at me.
On that occasion, almost 10 years ago now, I sought help from a kind couple who ensured I returned safely to my hotel.
These were admittedly isolated incidents and I came to no actual harm - there I go minimising them.
But stuff like this happens and many men (policy makers too) fail to appreciate the gauntlet women and young girls have to run every day simply because we are women.
How we have to think about personal safety in a way that many men don't. Or how violated we feel, even if we are subject to a 'low level' opportunistic assault, let alone a serious sexual assault.
But the scale of the apparently co-ordinated sexual attacks by young, Arabic-speaking men against women and girls in several German cities last New Year's Eve is truly terrifying.
As well as Cologne, co-ordinated attacks were also reported in Stuttgart and Hamburg. Officials suspect the involvement of criminal gangs of Arab and North African men who specialise in petty theft, drug-dealing and sexual attacks in at least some of the frenzy. Overwhelmed at first by the volume and severity of the attacks, German police were later stunned by their timing and co-ordination.
And what made it even more difficult for the authorities to admit the scale of the attacks was the political context in which they took place, namely the migrant crisis engulfing Europe and Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door" refugee policy which saw Germany register more than one million asylum-seekers last year.
Police in Cologne, where women and girls were attacked in public spaces including its train station and outside its iconic Gothic Cathedral, were silent about the ethnicity of the suspects until the emergence of statements by many of the victims as well as a frenzy on social media which forced them to acknowledge the underlying issues that may have fuelled them.
German police, whose resources have been overstretched by Merkel's open door policy, pleaded that they have struggled for months to deal with the activities of groups of migrant men who chose New Year's Eve to launch their sexist spectacular.
German media also became a target of ire by many right-wing groups who accuse them of censoring, subduing or covering up reports of crimes carried out by non-German nationals for fear of appearing xenophobic.
The social and political risks of linking the attacks generally with migrants cannot be understated. Any unwarranted demonisation of any class or creed, especially those fleeing war and persecution, runs the risk of stoking the flames of bigotry, racism and injustice.
We need only to look back at our own history with internment or Travellers to see how hysteria against and demonisation of certain groups, especially those we subject to "othering", can be deeply unjust.
But nor can we ignore the political context of the recent attacks in Germany and France.
Western democracies, with their foundations in Christian and Judeo-Christian principles, are engaged not only in a physical war of terror with Islamic extremists.
They are also been drawn and deliberately so, into a culture war in which western customs generally - and women and girls in particular - are deemed legitimate targets.
There is a reason why terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York or the Bataclan Theatre in Paris: it is not just bodies and buildings they wish to obliterate, but our values and way of life too. Rape and sexual violence against women is endemic around the world - sex is just another frontier.
The UN estimates that 35pc of women will experience sexual violence by an intimate partner or stranger and up to 70pc in some countries where the perpetrator is a former or current intimate partner.
Rape and sexual violence are standard weapons of war.
And we need only look to Boko Haram or the treatment of Yazidi women as 'sex slaves' by Isil and its misogynistic warriors to see how women are in the frontline of radical Islam's campaign against the West.
To be clear: we can not and should not equate the attacks in Germany with Isil (regardless of its appalling treatment of women) or to Islam with its cultural subjection of women that seems alien and wrong to us in many respects.
But we can not ignore the culture clash and challenges of assimilation - nor can we ignore the stark, inverse relationship between gender and sexual violence.
The attacks in Germany have strained the Western principles of solidarity and tolerance espoused by Merkel and others since the onset of the migration crisis.
This, of course, is what Isil and its affiliates want: to create a paralysing climate of fear and rekindle a fire of negativity towards vulnerable refugees and Islam.
We should respond to the attacks in Germany and elsewhere with a truly Western show of strength: by finding the perpetrators, prosecuting and punishing them in due course of law - regardless of their origin or background.