The Sexual Violence That Occurred in Cologne Needs to Be Discussed

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We have to speak about what happened in Cologne on New Years Eve, so as not to let the right-winged extremists get another ball to play with. Plus, why silence victims of sexual violence? That is far too often the case anyways.

Here’s my view:

Sexual violence needs to be condemned whenever it happens and by whoever carries out the attack. It was supposedly men of Arab/North African decent that carried out the attacks. Unfortunately after the largest refugee crisis after the second world war. These men come from societies that are far more patriarchal than European countries. The legislation and the culture and the religious practises favours men; sexual violence can be done without any repercussions; women can be killed without anyone arrested. Not all groups nor individuals in the Middle East and North Africa follows this order. There are plenty of exceptions and there has been a rapid development in some countries and regions when it comes to human and women’s rights, many of them I have been happy to be able to portray on this site.

But there is still a patriarchal norm that lies behind this high number of sexual harassments in many Middle Eastern and North African countries. And if the men who carried out the Cologne attacks descended from these countries, we have to address the issues of men having such deep patriarchal values that they don’t respect women – no matter where they are.

What I think should happen is: we need to discuss how to make these men accept and respect women’s rights. We need to address official, cultural and religious leaders of these communities so that they bring up these issues with their community members. The perpetrators should be traced and punished. If the German legislation brings that they would be deported after the penalty, in case the men don’t get have residency in Germany, than that’s a part of the punishment. What’s most important is: we need to not shy away from the subject because these men were from a – in Europe – already targeted minority. Because what they did is a horrendous crime and if we don’t address the underlying issues of men from patriarchal societies we will let the racists run the game – again.

Now I know most of my Middle Eastern male friends will not post anything about this on their social media sites. Especially if living in the West, they constantly feel they’re objects of suspicion in the eyes of whites, assuming they’re violent and patriarchal, and they don’t want to enhance this picture. Many of these men also frequently share posts about racism and how Arabs and Muslims are mistreated in the West, which is as much of a fact, but I would like to challenge them to bring up another group that is often mistreated within their own communities – women.

Because I also know that some of my male Middle Eastern friends most likely will post something about the Cologne attacks – men who are women’s rights activists and men who are challenging the patriarchal norm in their own societies. And I wish these men will set the agenda for everyone, all men, worldwide. That is the only way forward.

Photo credit: dw.com

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Young Angry Men

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Stereotypes of young angry men are often used in order to incite fear of the other – that other that is so scary to us for reasons we might not know ourselves. This is a disease so common we don’t reflect upon it. Why was for example Trayvon Martin’s murderer released if it wasn’t for that justifying fear?

I’ve been afraid myself: growing up in the capital of Sweden didn’t spare me from class related tensions, often connected to ethnicity or color, and riding on the subway made me subject of things such as sexual harassment and girls spitting me in the face. I was a blonde middle class girl for all they knew and an easy target for whatever anger they needed to vent. And yes, I was afraid of young men, especially of color, who seemed angry.

Later on when I was grown and graduated university I worked as a substitute teacher while I hoped a job opening would come through. I took on jobs in the projects as the social aspect of teaching appealed to me. The job contained a lot more of steering off violent teenagers and spending time on the phone to the social services than what it contained teaching, and it was draining at times but I was dedicated and stayed on. In one school I had a particularly violent student, one of those who would have scared me when I was younger, a 13 year old boy that we can call Mostafa.

On good days Mostafa was happy with merely stabbing a sharpened pen in his school desk while repeating every word the teacher said in a mocking voice. The whole school seemed to be afraid of him. I dreaded classes with him but always tried to keep my cool. That plus a dose of discipline and kindness was my way of dealing with the students.

“I’m gonna destroy your presentation, you fucking bitch!” was one of his opening lines, to which I usually replied “Oh, really”, which always left him puzzled for a few seconds.

But despite our efforts to teach the kids we teachers never asked ourselves what the anger came from. We didn’t seem to have the energy to do the math of alienation, substandard housing, poverty. Isn’t that the fault of the whole society?

Now Mostafa was the child of immigrant parents from a Middle Eastern country and I mentioned once to the students that I had lived in his parents’ country of origin. Mostafa didn’t comment upon it but other kids asked me of the few words I had picked up in Arabic and Mostafa overheard it all. One day he banged on the door and demanded to be let in when I was preparing a class. He positioned himself on a desk and started to talk to me about his parent’s home country, as if he wanted to verify that it was really true I had lived there. We had a small conversation where he asked questions such as “Did you have friends there?” (“Yes, I did”), before he went out again.

After that day he slowly changed his behavior in my class. He stopped mocking me when I spoke. He stopped throwing things across the classroom. He tried to finish his exercises and left his desk to show me that he was writing (“Great, Mostafa. You’re doing really well”). Then the school semester came to an end, so did my temporary contract and the next semester I was teaching at a different school.

One evening there was a festival in our city and I was out with a friend to listen to some live music. When we approached the hiphop scene I suddenly heard a teenage voice calling my name:

“Jenny, Jenny!”

It was Mostafa, whom I hadn’t seen since the end of the last semester. He had spotted me from the audience stage and suddenly stood above me.

“Hi Mostafa!” I answered with a smile, pleased to see him.

Back then I often – and I still actually do – ran in to former students who were happier to see me outside school than they had ever been seeing me inside of it. When bumping in to each other downtown many wanted to talk a little and tell me about their lives; some simply said hi; the most hardcore ones usually just nodded in recognition or ignored me. Not wanting to talk was to me understandable, as some of them dropped out of school and joined gangs, and this is nothing you want to admit to your former teacher. But nothing of what I could have expected had prepared me for Mostafa’s response that day: he jumped off the stage, threw himself in my arms, and buried his head in my shoulder. Perplexed I hugged him for a few amazing seconds.

“How are you? I’m fine! I gotta go!” He said all in once and then freed himself from my embrace, suddenly realizing what he had done; the hug of a former teacher in front of his friends, then set off and ran away.

I never saw him again, later on I heard that he was one of the kids to drop out of school, but I will never forget the hug that day. It changed my previous perception of young and angry men. In that very moment, the angry Mostafa whom everyone was so afraid of, was nowhere in sight.

Photo credit: mahwaff.com

I’m Not a Racist

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Who admits himself that he’s a racist? No one I hang out with. Recently there has been a lot of talk about the neo-Nazi movement and Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, but today I want to shed light on our everyday racism. It’s easy to bash the extremists but the prejudices amongst us common people can be worse: so hard to point out but still building hate among us.

In my teenage years I had a friend who was a good, white girl from an academic family, whom seemed to like me for reasons I couldn’t figure; me with my poor school attendance, my many boyfriends and heavy make-up. But I liked her too and we stayed friends up until our university years. What bothered me though, were her intolerant comments. “Slimy Turks” she would call all young immigrant guys she came across. My boyfriends if they were foreigners were all potential rapists, no matter if she had ever met them. “They do that in their countries,” she just said, not specifying what countries she meant. At the same time she was organizing demonstrations against racism, and at university enrolled in a project for immigrants and Swedes to meet where she was handed an “immigrant friend” (that’s a topic for another blog post) whom she went out for coffee with. In her middle class world, this combination was perfectly fine.

I didn’t have the knowledge on how to battle her comments in my teens but I used to ask her if the guys she had just called slimy Turks were from Turkey, each time she came up with the statement.

“I don’t know,” she’d always reply.

“So don’t call them Turks,” I said.

After a while she stopped using that label around me. But with other friends she continued her ways and they defended her when I brought up the subject of her intolerance.

“Immigrants are like that, Jenny!” a common friend once told me in an irritated tone. “Guys tries to touch you when you go clubbing, the girls are bitches.”

She knew this was a touchy subject as I myself had been spat in the face by an immigrant girl on the subway when in high school, for no reason at all but me being Swedish.

“But not all of them,” I said.

“No, but the absolute majority!”

This bothered me more and more the older we got and the comments didn’t decrease. Her surroundings didn’t become more mixed, it rather intensified the white middle class that she had been brought up with, but I hoped education would make her reconsider things. It didn’t and she just picked up more subjects to complain about, such as Arabs all marrying off their daughters in arranged marriages and immigrant women having no hobbies but childrearing and house chores.

I have my prejudices too, I admit it, but I try to work on them and she just stayed the same. Then one day I just lost patience. I stopped taking her calls and messages. I left her disappointed and wondering why I dropped our friendship after so many years without explanation. Today I wonder how I could be her friend for so long in first place. People with these views create hate, which leads to more hate, which leads to justified racism. How nice and sweet and active in anti-racism demonstrations they might be. Nothing good ever comes out of that hypocrisy at all.

Photo credit: medium.com

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog