Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Dear Henriette Reker - An Open Letter

Mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker.
Photo credit: Oliver Berg/AP

Some of you may not have heard about the dreadful attacks in Cologne over New Year, in which scores of women were sexually abused, mugged and, in one case, raped.  Police in Germany have spoken about "a new dimension in crime," voicing fears that the gang of men behind the staggering attacks had planned and organised their actions in advance.

Clearly, the actions of those men were abhorrent.  Obviously, the blame for what took place on a night where countless women were merely out celebrating the New Year, lies squarely on the shoulders of those men.

But the Mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, has made comments which are all too depressingly familiar in the wake of such incidents.  Rather than lay blame at the feet of the despicable attackers, her tactic was to advise women on how to better prevent it from happening in the first place.  As though any of those attacked on New Year's Eve somehow brought it on themselves.  I'm tired of banging on about the same bloody subject.  The only person to blame for rape is the rapist.  With that in mind, I have a few words for Ms Reker...

Dear Ms Reker,

On New Year's Eve, dozens of women went out in your city, to celebrate the turn of the New Year.  Those women were harassed, abused, groped, mugged and, in one case, raped.  The centre of your city has since been declared a "no-go zone" for women.  My question to you is this: HOW, in a modern, democratic country, can you even think of using such terminology?  How have we found ourselves in a position in which one sex is effectively warned off an area of the city, due to the behaviour of the other?  Or, to put it another way: why are you suggesting ways that women can "prevent" themselves from being attacked, rather than simply promising to find and prosecute the attackers themselves?

Before I go on, let me try to look upon your words in a calm, rational manner.  You're the Mayor of a city in which around 90 women were assaulted on a night out, last week.  Having experienced an attack yourself, of course you are interested in female self-protection as well as prevention.  It seems that you simply want the women living in or visiting your city to watch out for one another as well as themselves.  That's understandable.

BUT - and it's one heck of a 'but' - the fact is, it should not be down to women to avoid certain areas, or follow a frankly insulting "Code of Conduct," in order to prevent sexual attacks in your city.  It's not the potential victim's responsibility to prevent her own assault.  It's your responsibility - and that of your fellow local government officials and police force - to ensure that sexual assault is taken seriously and that those guilty of it are found and prosecuted.  It's your responsibility to crack down on violent crime against women.

Telling women to ensure that they stand "more than an arm's length" away from strangers in a bustling city, on one of the busiest nights of the year is frankly laughable.  Have you ever tried walking through a crowd like that?  You also tell females to "stick together in groups," but have you actually read any of the accounts given by women who were attacked that night?  Because I have and the majority of those women were in groups.  The fact is that they were outnumbered by their attackers, who worked to isolate their victims (as is so often the case in these situations).  

You've gone on to mention the carnivals taking place in Cologne city centre next month, warning women about the "potential dangers of drunken events."  Where is your warning to the men intent on carrying out attacks on those women?  Where is the promise of heightened police presence and of harsh consequences for any wannabe rapist/attacker?  Why are you addressing the victims (and possible future victims), rather than speaking directly to the perpetrators of such disgusting crimes?

I can appreciate that, with the police and victims describing the men who carried out these sickening attacks as being of North African or Arab appearance, you are probably concerned about heightening racial tensions, seeing as Germany has taken in so many refugees.  But condemning the actions of these men is not the same as condemning all refugees or immigrants and only an idiot would make a blanket judgement based on the actions of this group.  Calling out the behaviour of a sex-attacker as wrong does not make you racist.  You're allowed to say that what these men did was disgusting and you should.  Instead, you're merely giving women a set of "rules" to follow, as though doing so will magically prevent further attacks, whilst suggesting that you need to provide a "better explanation" to immigrants to your country, in order to "prevent confusion as to what constitutes happy behaviour."  Is it just me, or is that insulting to both the vast majority of immigrants who almost certainly are aware that raping, groping and mugging women is wrong, as well as to the women who've suffered such attacks?  It's equivalent to "there, there, these people just don't know any better."

We live in a world in which victim-blaming is all-too-common.  Much too frequently, when a woman is raped, we hear people asking questions such as:

  • "What was she wearing?"
  • "Had she been drinking?"
  • "Did she kiss the guy or lead him on?"
  • "Was she walking on her own, late at night?"

The purpose of these questions seems to be to find a reason for the attack suffered by the victim.  It's as though we can casually explain away a rape if we can somehow find that the victim brought it on herself.  The truth of the matter is that the answers to all of those questions don't matter one bit.  If a person is attacked, they are not responsible for it - the attacker is.

By coming up with a "Code of Conduct" for the women living in or visiting your city, you are, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to a culture of victim-blaming that desperately needs to be stamped out.  It's absolutely fine and understandable to want women to look out for one another and to report crime when they see it.  It's not fine or understandable that a member of local government's go-to response to a mass sex-attack against women is to make up rules for the women to follow, in order to stop themselves being attacked in future, rather than focusing on the perpetrators of the attack as being responsible.

You want women to ensure that they keep strangers at arm's length, in the middle of a carnival atmosphere, where literally thousands of people are gathered to celebrate.  You want women to remain in tight-knit groups, in an atmosphere where many of those groups were overpowered by larger numbers of attackers, determined to mug, harass and assault women.  Can you see how you're completely missing the point, with your "advice"?!

When 90 women are attacked on your streets, the answer is not look for ways that those women could have better prevented what happened.  It's to find, prosecute and condemn those attackers for what they did.  They are responsible.  To seemingly make half-hearted excuses and lay the responsibility for preventing further attacks on the shoulders of women shows me that, unfortunately, you're standing much more than an arm's length away from logic.


  1. again, I hope I'm not being presumptuous being the only commenter here (and being male), but I thought this was an excellent column (post), Emma. the disgusting and horrible and, especially, dishonest practice of "victim blaming" can only exist in a patriarchy where women are seen as lesser than the dominant group (white males or women standing in for them).
    Our Vice President, Joe Biden, woke up a lot of U.S. women to feminist consciousness while presiding over the hearings against Anita Hill---the outstanding jurist and professor---as she testified to his committee in the 1990's of her sexual abuse and general rough behavior by soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.
    When you see a woman vilified---or groped and raped---and expect her to have protected herself, this is too much to take. I am amazed that the Cologne mayor was not roundly condemned by all of Europe! You wonder when it will stop. Our top universities, Harvard and Columbia, have not protected the women students who have been molested on their campus (up to and including rape)---and these are among the best schools in our country.
    What can you be but angry, frustrated, and sad for the women involved and all women who realize they won't be protected.
    Again, thank you for your bringing this all out. Excuse me for a maybe too long comment here (but I am at that point of total disgust at women not being protected, domestic abuse, domestic sexual abuse and public attacks.

    1. Never apologise - your response was beautifully worded and passionate and I'm so glad you commented, because I agree wholeheartedly with every word!


Drop me a line!