Regardless of the background of the men who carried out the attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve, it is a pretty horrific story. A series of sexual attacks took place in the city centre by a group of around 1,000 men. More than 150 women have filed criminal complaints, three-quarters of them for sexual assault. Two cases of rape have been reported. It is the kind of story that should make headlines - and should provide ample fodder for writers who like to tackle feminist topics head on. After all, surely this is the very definition of 'rape culture'? And if the actual attacks aren't enough to merit a reaction, then how about the suggestion by Cologne's female mayor that women should adopt a 'code of conduct' to prevent future assault. Is that not the very definition of 'victim blaming'?
But the headlines have been conspicuous by their absence. So far this year, the main 'feminist' topic covered by Guardian comment writers is Chris Gayle's cricket sexism row, which involves the sportsman chatting up a female journalist. There is not one mention of the Cologne attacks, aside from in news reports. Why is that? Is it because they are not deemed important? Perhaps we don't care about vicious attacks against German frauen? Or is it because the details of the story - that the men appear to have been of 'Arab or North African origin' who did not seem to speak German or English, and that there is a possibility they are some of the 1.1 million migrants to have entered Germany last year - make it too controversial to touch? Feminist writers are not famed for holding their tongues - as individuals who have been hanged, drawn and quartered by them can attest. But in an article for Prospect, Jessica Abrahams offers this measly explanation for the silence:
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 because of concerns it might be used to encourage aggression against refugees, I can’t say I blame them. The fault lies not with the feminists but with those making them nervous to speak–the very same people, often, who are expressing outrage that they aren’t.
It is usually the task of feminists to make enough noise about incidents of sexual assault that they can no longer be ignored; the Cologne attack was big enough that it received a huge amount of attention across Europe and further afield. We can only hope now that the police are successful in bringing those responsible to the courtroom and preventing further attacks, and that the women involved are given enough support.
I do not wish to get into a debate about migration, but it seems fair to suggest we face facts: many North African and Arab countries are not famed for their exemplary treatment of women. And many of the people entering Europe are young men from these countries, who may well have never come across the concept that women are equal to men, and do not deserve to be threatened, molested or raped. If we are too scared to say this, for fear that it might look uncharitable towards migrants, then we land ourselves in all kinds of trouble. Eventually we will have to say it though, so we might as well start now.