When I decided to take a white-saviour volunteer position as a boarding mistress and teacher in an Indian school at the grand old age of eighteen, I experienced a variety of reactions from family, friends and complete strangers. However, two months before I left, when the Delhi gang rape and subsequent protests hit headlines across the world, that all changed. The nigh universal response became: “Have you really thought this through? Do you really want to be a single woman on your own in India?” The company that had facilitated my placement even sent a carefully-worded email essentially offering me the chance to renege. The collective anxiety was contagious, and I started to wonder if they were right.
The internet, however, was quick reassure me: the stats that were being quoted were not indicative of the ‘rape crisis’ the media were reporting, but of more women (and men) feeling they were able to report sexual assault. In fact, the widespread sense of outrage made it seem like it might be safer to go to India now than in any time in recent history. People’s blindfolds had come off, and they weren’t willing to be passive about the problem any longer.
Today, we are seeing a similar sense of outrage over the mass sexual assaults that occurred on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, but whereas Indian society stared into its soul and came away with conclusions about the way it treats women, Germany is coming to conclusions about race and immigration. It’s hardly surprising that the attacks – with their North African and Arab suspects – have become a flashpoint for these issues, given that their multi-kulti policies and openness towards asylum-seekers have been causing spiralling angst and concern about retaining German culture (Heimatkultur) in the face of unprecedented immigration.
However, the focus on race detaches the Cologne attacks from what they actually were: sexual assault against women. Instead of recognising that we still have problems with the way women are treated in supposedly egalitarian Western countries, it becomes a matter of us and them: they treat women like this, but we do not. It’s a national exercise in cognitive dissonance that prevents any awareness of institutionalised sexism and violence against women, and reduces blame to individuals of other races.
But, if it’s them and not us, then why is does my office building have codes on the doors to the women’s bathrooms, but not the men’s? Why do my male friends have to step in to deter unwelcome advances after my own refusals are ignored? Why is it standard practice for women text each other after a night out to confirm they’ve all got home safely and without incident?
If it can’t possibly be us, then why were the police so vastly unhelpful and dismissive that night, apparently telling one woman who had been stripped of her clothes and underwear to “keep a good grip on your champagne bottle to use as a weapon”? Why did an initial report filed by the police in Cologne record a “mostly peaceful New Year’s Eve” that was “relaxed” in atmosphere?