On July 7th 2016 the German parliament decided to tighten the criminal law regarding rape.
For decades German feminists had battled for ‘no means no’ to be the guiding principle in rape law. Rape was only recognized legally if a victim had been physically coerced into sexual acts. The need to prove that a victim physically resisted and the fact that a ‘no’ was not sufficient to qualify as rape was identified as an illustration of deep-rooted sexism. With fewer than five out of one hundred sexual assaults ending in court, and only two resulting in a criminal conviction, Germany failed to implement the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention).
However, the revision of Section 177 of the criminal code was not a recognition of feminist struggles, it was a direct consequence of the racialization of sexual violence in the aftermath of the Cologne events on New Year’s Eve. The German parliament adopted ‘no means no’ in conjunction with changes to immigration law. A conviction for sexual assault would, in addition to a regular punishment, now also lead to deportation. Moreover, the revision also mentioned ‘assaults committed by large groups’. Anti-racist feminists, such as the internet initiative #ausnahmslos problematized the racialization of sexual harassment and rape, highlighting Germany’s controversial history regarding rape legislation that feminists had campaigned against for decades.
In our article On Cologne: Gender, migration and unacknowledged racisms in Germanymy co-author Christiane Carri and I argue that the aftermath of the Cologne events illustrate how racial denial and anti-feminism operate in the German context. Cologne was mediatized in a climate of heightened nationalism. The refugee crisis rendered visible the ambiguity of Germany’s racial politics epitomized by the patronizing liberal (and no less nationalist) welcoming culture and the rise of the extreme right in the form of the PEGIDA movement as well as the electoral successes of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The media and political debates following the Cologne events nurtured post-feminist fantasies and anti-Muslim rhetoric as the media reports highlighted the newsworthiness of racialized sex offenders and the failure to protect ‘the nation’s women’ from the ‘immigrant invader’.
The idea that welcoming refugees had become ‘a trap’, that was now eroding the nation from within, resonated with the recent ‘failure of multiculturalism’ debate and consequently, Cologne was taken as proof that the roughly 500’000 people who had applied for asylum in 2015 were impossible to ‘integrate’. As intersectional feminist voices emerged to point out the partial logic and racist undertone of the mainstream political debates, they were compared to Holocaust deniers and accused of fueling right-wing extremists. Anti-feminist commentators called for an end of ‘political correctness’, refuting anti-racism as harmful to policing. Less than a year after the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Germany to combat and end the widespread police practice of racial profiling, Cologne highlighted the persistence and denial of institutional and structural racism. Political demands such as faster deportations, a limit of refugee numbers and the closure of the German borders were voiced across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, anti-racist organizations reported a dramatic rise in arson attacks against refugee centers with an average of three attacks per week across Germany.
Cologne illustrated the difficulty of addressing systemic injustices in a climate that is both committed to the post-feminist contention that sexism is a reminiscence of a past and that anti-racism is a distraction from ‘the real dangers’ that immigration brings about. The failure or refusal to understand how race operates in contemporary rhetoric about migration will lead to similarly flawed analyses as those who want to see feminism cleared of anti-racism.