Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
In Saturday’s Times, Caitlin Moran wrote a typically angry, funny and brilliant column about sexism and the proprietorial attitudes towards women that continue to exist in Britain, even today. She was writing about the everyday behaviour of men towards women, the way women are described in the media, and ingrained social norms that, in her words, are “achingly old”.
In the days before the publication of her column, however, a story emerged that shows that, far from becoming entrenched, women’s rights in Europe are in danger. According to eye witness accounts, in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, “an estimated thousand men, believed to mainly be migrants and asylum seekers, sexually abused, raped and robbed scores of women in a city square.” The full facts are yet to be established – such as the exact identities of the perpetrators and the extent to which the attacks were organised and coordinated – but Cologne’s police chief described what happened as “a completely new dimension of crime”. A leaked police report said there was chaos “beyond description”, and explained that police officers were overwhelmed by the number of women and girls trying to “report sexual assaults by male migrants or groups.”
But this was not the story the German authorities at first wanted to tell. On New Year’s Day, the police reported that “as in the year before, the New Year’s Eve celebrations … were peaceful”, while their oblique references to minor acts of disorder appear to have been constructed to deliberately deceive the public. As recently as last Tuesday, the city police told a press conference that, “at the moment we have no leads about the perpetrators.” As the same event, Henriette Reker, the Mayor of Cologne, said: “there’s no evidence that we’re dealing here with people who are refugees,” before telling reporters that any suggestion that the perpetrators might have been refugees were “absolutely impermissible.” And the deceit was not just limited to the police and politicians: following criticism on social media, Germany’s public broadcaster, ZDF, was forced to apologise for failing to report the attacks until four days after they had taken place.
What happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne might seem like a strange one-off moment, but we know that similar events took place that night – albeit on a smaller scale – in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart, a border town in Baden-Württemberg called Weil am Rhine, and in other countries including Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. We also know, according to women’s organisations, that there is a “culture of rape and violence” in German refugee camps.
Yet the official reaction has been striking for its lack of concern for the victims. In Cologne, the Mayor has proposed a code of conduct advising women and girls about how to behave, while she says there needs to be a “better explanation” for asylum seekers “to prevent confusion about what constitutes happy behaviour” as opposed to what she calls “openness, especially in sexual behaviour.” Why the Mayor thinks she needs to describe rape and sexual assault in such euphemistic language, only she knows.
In Britain, left-wing feminists who feel conflicted between their opposition to sexual violence and their support for high immigration have also sought to justify their silence. One campaigner wrote: “feminists are necessarily concerned with the protection of minorities and marginalised groups. If some of them are finding it difficult to speak up about the event [in Cologne] because of concerns it might be used to encourage aggression against refugees, I can’t say I blame them.”
But in Britain, we know exactly where this head-in-the-sand attitude takes us. Of course, sexual violence can be perpetrated by people of all racial, religious and cultural backgrounds but that does not mean in specific, localised cases, race, religion and culture are not a factor. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in Rotherham, for example, concluded that “in Rotherham, the majority of known perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage” but state agencies had failed to take action because they had been “inhibited by the fear of affecting community relations.” In a similar case in Bristol, we know that the perpetrators were mainly Somali and their victims were vulnerable white girls, while in another case in Oxford, in which the victims were again white girls, the perpetrators were mainly of East African and Pakistani heritage.
These are obviously incredibly sensitive matters – and the majority of people in Britain who sexually abuse children are white men – but it would be irresponsible to ignore race, religion and culture where they are relevant factors in sexual violence. Because there can surely be no doubt that when people are encouraged to believe that they are superior to others – that a man is superior to a woman, that one race is superior to another, that belief in a particular religion makes one superior to those of other faiths or of none – this has an effect on their propensity to commit certain crimes and the identities of their victims. There are countless examples from history of how prejudice, hatred and bigotry – from the slave trade, to religious conflicts and civil wars – can coincide with sexual violence. In Rotherham, for example, the murderer of Laura Wilson, who was groomed for sex with a number of men, called his victim a “kaffir bitch”.
And yet for years in Britain we have let this kind of extremist bigotry to grow, unchallenged and unchecked. In this country, between 2010 and 2014, almost 12,000 incidences of so-called “honour-based” violence were recorded. In 2014, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with more than 1,250 cases, and in the same year it was estimated that 170,000 women in England and Wales were living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation. As part of the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham, in which extremists sought to impose a hardline curriculum on nominally secular state schools, primary school pupils were told about the dangers of “white prostitutes”. It is well known that Sharia courts are providing a parallel legal system, which discriminates against women, traps them in abusive relationships and denies them access to justice in legitimate courts. The Sharia Council for the Midlands, for example, openly publishes advice about polygamous marriage on its website, even though it is supposed to be illegal in this country.
For understandable reasons, the Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy has been seen as a way of tackling the threat we face from terrorism – and of course it is – but extremism must also be confronted because of the enormous social damage it causes. So it is welcome that the strategy targets not just ideological extremism but bigotry that is based on cultural values and social norms that have no place in a modern, liberal democracy like ours. We will soon see a review of the application of Sharia law in Britain, but we will also need to see the strategy’s proposals turned into a reality by the whole of Whitehall, the rest of the public sector and indeed all of us in civil society.
Doing so will require difficult decisions about matters of great sensitivity. But this is not something that can be ducked – in Britain, in Germany or anywhere else. In Rotherham, officials were so concerned about appearing racist, they let the organised child abuse of 1,400 vulnerable young people take place under their very noses. In Germany, the state has appeared to be more concerned about defending the principle of immigration than protecting and caring for the victims of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks.
But if we turn a blind eye to this kind of violence, there will be little point in worrying about the gender pay gap, women’s career progression, body image, the burden of childcare, or any other feminist cause. Because if a woman can’t walk through a major European city without fear of attack, and without the confidence that she will be protected by the state or her fellow citizens, we will have turned the clock back on decades and possibly centuries of progress. So I am all for joining Caitlin Moran in tackling the achingly-old sexist social norms that have existed in Britain for centuries – but feminists of right and left need to stand up to the achingly-old social norms that exist in minority communities too, however difficult that might prove to be.