Feminism alive and kicking in Germany as #aufschrei campaign makes waves

January 29, 2013

A boss who offers a female employee to work sitting on his lap because there is no desk available for her;  a guest who tells the waitress he wants to eat “pussy” when she asks him what he’d like to order; a man who wonders why a woman works in computing even though “she is pretty”.

Germany has been abuzz with tweets, newspaper headlines, radio programmes and TV debates about everyday sexism since last week when a reporter at Stern magazine published an article alleging that a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition made sexist comments about her breasts.

Headlined “Gentleman’s Humour”, Laura Himmelreich described in her article how Rainer Bruederle, the 67-year-old leader of the Free Democrats, junior partners in the government, allegedly told her during drinks at a party event that she could “really fill a dirndl”, the low cut Bavarian traditional dress,  with her breasts.

What initially stirred a controversy over the relationship between reporters and politicians  quickly turned into a much wider debate about everyday sexism when blogger Anne Wizorek turned to Twitter on Friday to ask others to share their experiences with sexual innuendo and harassment.

Using the hashtag #aufschrei (outcry), thousands of women, and some men, took to Twitter to talk about what they had been exposed to in the streets, workplaces and bars of Germany. By Sunday #aufschrei had attracted more than 60,000 posts and the number is growing.

“Because little girls grow up hating their bodies and dreaming of plastic surgery,” read one tweet, while another one said “because whilst a man is just asking, or just saying, a woman is ‘nagging’.”

“Because having sexual comments shouted at us across the street should not be an accepted part of being female,” tweeted another, while another stated that “despite the myth of equality, so many doors are still closed to women.”

“#aufschrei should be an outcry for all of those who think that there is no sexism and discrimination in our society,” a male tweeter summed it all up.

But others dismissed #aufschrei as lacking focus, calling in their tweets for a less emotional response.

Campaigns such as #aufschrei can go a long way in raising public awareness about sexism and sexual harassment. In the United States, women joined forces in the “Stop Street Harassment” project and used social media to speak out, while in Canada campaigners developed the “Not Your Baby” smart phone app to give ideas how women can respond to sexual harassment at home, work or in public spaces.

In the UK, where statistics released this month showed one in five women over 16 had been the victim of a sexual offence,  women are #shoutingback via Twitter in a campaign launched by the Everyday Sexism Project.


One could be forgiven for thinking that sexism is no longer a problem in Germany, where gender equality is enshrined in the constitution and many other statutes both on federal and state level. For decades there hasn’t been such a heated debate about what is acceptable in how men relate to women.

“Does Germany have a sexism problem?” asked Guenther Jauch, one of the country’s top television hosts, in a panel debate aired on Sunday.

Rather tellingly, the debate reflected how divided Germany is when it comes to talking about what is acceptable in the relationship between the genders.

The country’s most famous feminist, Alice Schwarzer, joined forces on the televised panel with Wizorek to argue that everyday sexism was alive and kicking and had to be stopped for the good of society.

But veteran TV newscaster Wiebke Bruhns, who became the first woman to anchor a flagship news programme in Germany in the 1970s, did not join the sisterhood and remarked instead that men will be men, while literary critic Hellmuth Karasek argued that women wanted man to stare at their breasts.

Jauch often appeared as if he wasn’t taking the subject seriously. He frequently interrupted Schwarzer and Wizorek  and ended the debate by saying “May I invite you all to the bar?”, in reference to the fact that Stern reporter Himmelreich, 29, and Bruederle met at the bar when he allegedly leered at her breasts.

Everyday sexism used to be a key battleground of feminists in 1970s and 1980s Germany but the 1990s did women no favours on the anti-sexism front, argued Schwarzer.

“That’s when women were told that if they got qualifications and worked as hard as men, everything would be fine (in terms of equality), ” Schwarzer wrote in an editorial in Emma , the feminist magazine she founded in 1977.

As a result, she argued, the “proud new women” of that generation felt that talking publicly about everyday sexism would be a sign of weakness or lack of a sense of humour.

Sexism had become part of the vocabulary of “fun-killing old feminists” and there was no space to raise concerns any more in public debate – it had to be ‘smiled away’ instead for fear of not being taking seriously.

“But now the pain threshold has been crossed,” wrote Schwarzer. “Enough smiles. It’s getting serious again.”

(IMAGE: German women’s rights activist Schwarzer and TV presenter Guenther Jauch pose with their awards after 56th ‘Bambi’ media awards in Hamburg in this 2004 archive photo. REUTERS/Christian Charisius)


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