ithin days of the sexual assault of hundreds of women in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015, numerous commentaries had been penned decrying feminists for their purported silence[1] about the attacks and, more broadly, for betraying the women[2] whose interests feminists are deemed to be responsible for protecting. Further accusations came thick and fast. Feminists, it was said, were guilty of cultural relativism and of a double standard when it came to "rape culture"—condemning it on university campuses but refusing to see it among migrants.

Throughout a large swathe of the public commentary on the events in Cologne, however, there was not simply an attribution of a specific rape culture to "migrants." Rather, what was invoked was an imagination of an Islamic rape culture—part of a broader Orientalist discourse that deems Islam to be especially oppressive of women. In the first of several slippages of meaning I want to cover here, the assaults were widely used as a pretext to call for tighter controls on the numbers of migrants arriving in Europe having fled the current violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the perpetrators of the attacks were reported as being largely made up of men from longer-standing migrant or minority communities—possibly Moroccans and Algerians (or their descendants) living elsewhere in Europe. Being Muslim, it seems, was enough to unite these groups in the imaginations of many of the commentariat.

The slippage between the ostensible identities of the perpetrators and the current flow of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in turn relies on other slippages. Several commentators have drawn parallels between the events in Cologne and the large-scale sexual assaults of women in other places, creating a metonymic chain connecting Cologne with Stockholm in 2015, Tunis and Cairo in 2011, Algiers in 1969, and the brutality of ISIS since 2014. Especially emblematic of the idea that Muslim migrants bring with them a particularly dangerous and ideological kind of misogyny is the large-scale sexual assault of female protesters in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab Spring. The prominence of Tahrir Square in this metonymy may be connected to news reporting that used the Egyptian pronunciation taharrush gamea rather than the standard Arabic taḥarrush jamāʿī to describe collective sexual harassment in public.

It is not only conservatives and reactionaries that have invoked such connections, but also some avowed feminists. The Algerian feminist sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas, for instance, accuses European feminists of ignoring the similarities between the events in Cologne and what she dubs practices of "sexual terror" in Tahrir Square, Tunis and Algiers. Such sexual terror, she argues, is an expression of a broader phenomenon of "Muslim fundamentalism." Lucas reproaches European feminists for overgeneralizing the need to defend Muslim minorities from discrimination in Europe to the extent that warnings about ‘Muslim reactionaries’ become inadmissible within feminist discourse. The effect, she suggests, is that European feminists end up defending the perpetrators of sexual violence, not the victims. Here, of course, is another slippage, for Lucas’s argument demands that all Muslims be viewed through the lens of fundamentalism. If European feminists are understood to be defending the perpetrators and not the victims, then it is assumed that all Muslim migrants are perpetrators.

The logic underlying this kind of argument locates the origins of sexual violence in a set of beliefs and ideologies that are deemed to be alien and Other to liberal, progressive Europe. One of the most celebrated German feminists, Alice Schwarzer, explains the Cologne attacks in terms of the perpetrators being ‘shaped by conditions’ of male dominance in "antiquated," "Islamic cultural circles." In addition, she recycles the Orientalist construction in which Muslim migrants bring to Europe a cultural inheritance in which women have no rights and are the dependents of men, a state of affairs generated by a "politicization of Islam." Similarly, the self-declared liberal and former radical Islamist Maajid Nawaz offers the purported disjuncture between European sexual norms and the cultural norms of Muslim immigrants as a relevant context for understanding the Cologne assaults. Once again, the slippage between norms and beliefs to actions and violence is apparent, yet the implied relationship is not borne out by the very crime statistics that Nawaz himself cites: once the overrepresentation of men among immigrants is accounted for, rates of sexual offences committed by migrants appears to be similar to the rates among Germans as a whole. Nawaz’s article makes very clear his view that what is at stake in addressing the disjuncture in norms between Europeans and Muslim migrants is Europe’s progressive liberal political settlement—one that is understood to offer protections for women’s rights. This sentiment is echoed by other commentators—among them both feminists and conservatives.

It is no wonder, then, that the Cologne assaults have been seized upon by so many commentators as an opportunity to question Germany—and Europe’s—policies towards the current crisis of migration from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. As Jennifer Petzen (2012) has observed, "Muslim" gender and sexual practices and norms have been produced so as to stand in as the constitutive Other to a Europe imagined as progressive and liberal. Muslims have become racialized as a threat that will destroy Europe’s purported sexual freedoms and gender equality. Petzen’s argument that this racialization needs to be understood in the context of the "war on terror" appears to be very prescient given the characterization of the events in Cologne as "sexual terrorism" and Lucas’s call for feminists to recognize mass sexual assaults as "terror." As refugees, in particular, come to be produced as a "risk group" within a security apparatus designed to protect European values and ways of life, it would be apposite to heed Pain’s (2014) warnings—in the context of attempting to bring together thinking about gendered violence and global terrorism—about the inequitable nature of such apparatuses.

There are many feminist writers, activists and academics who disagree with the positions taken by Schwarzer and Lucas. In the eyes of the latter—as well as of many of the other commentators discussed in this piece—the sin these feminists commit is to fail to protect women’s rights as conceptualized within a liberal imagination. These feminists’ commitment to anti-racism is depicted as a subsumption of the defense of women’s rights at the lower end of a hierarchy of rights. The retort from these feminists is that given the prevalence of sexual violence targeted at women—not to mention other expressions of patriarchy—in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the fantasy that Europe has realized gender equity and justice (in contrast to the values held by Muslim migrants) cannot be maintained. The problem of sexual violence cannot simply be excluded or deported. Other events need to be referenced to upset the terrain of representation: the large-scale sexual assault of women at Karneval in Cologne and at the Oktoberfest in Munich tends to be perpetrated by non-Muslim European men. It is racist to attend only to the sexual violence of immigrant men and to ignore feminist struggles to get sexual violence across all society taken seriously. It is racist to overgeneralize, to assume that all Muslim migrants are beholden to a patriarchal view of gender relations. The lesson of Tahrir Square might not simply be that taharrush gamea reproduced a theocratic and patriarchal policing of women’s place in public; rather, it might also be that public space was contested. The lesson might be about the agency of Muslim women that so often goes unrecognized in European—and, more broadly, Western (Abu-Lughod, 2013)—discourse and about the Muslim men who contributed to collective action against the sexual assaults.

This kind of response requires a considered and informed knowledge of a complex and interwoven series of events and relations. It refuses to be drawn into reactionary commentary simply reproducing the axioms that outline the "common sense" about male Muslim migrants, European liberalism, and how feminism should defend women’s rights. It insists on the necessity of the pause for thought.


[1] Why are Feminists Refusing to Discuss the Cologne Sex Attacks
[2] Why Feminism Failed Colognes Women


Abu-Lughod L (2013) Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Pain R (2014) Everyday terrorism: Connecting domestic violence and global terrorism. Progress in Human Geography 38(4): 531–550.
Petzen J (2012) Contesting Europe: a call for an anti-modern sexual politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies 19(1): 97–114.