Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author based in Cairo and New York City. She is the author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” and is at @.
On reading that 100 French women, including actor Catherine Deneuve, had penned a letter that claimed social media campaigns such as #MeToo were “witch-hunts” against men and threatened sexual freedom, the internalized misogyny was almost too much to bear. It was predictable that some women would dutifully side with men rather than the women who are exposing sexual harassment and abuse in almost every profession and industry imaginable.
Much of the outrage directed against Deneuve, et al. has mostly explained the anti-#MeToo sentiments of the signatories as belonging to another generation of women who were socialized to accept misogyny in a way younger women today reject. Some have also explained the signatories’ position by claiming it belonged to a generation of women for whom sexual liberty was important.
But it wasn’t just misogyny at play.
When the signatories defended men’s “freedom to pester” women, my first thought was “which men?”
When Deneuve, et al. insist that men should be “free to hit on” women and that “trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not a crime,” one has to to wonder whether that “freedom” would be extended to the migrants, the refugees and the asylum seekers in sex-education workshops.
Such workshops are in Norway, Germany and Belgium. In the case of Sweden, an online manual on sex for teen migrants is designed to teach “European sexual norms and social codes” to men said to come from conservative, mostly Muslim backgrounds. News articles about those workshops usually portrayed them as men who have no idea how to behave toward women in miniskirts who smile at them.
In a 2015 New York Times article, Henry Ove Berg, who was once police chief of Stavanger, the Norwegian city where the country’s program to teach immigrants about local norms and how to avoid misreading social signals was initiated, said he supported providing migrants sex education because “people from some parts of the world have never seen a girl in a miniskirt, only in a burqa.” When they get to Norway, he added, “something happens in their heads.”
While Deneuve, et al. were penning their letter, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party railed against “barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men” and “marauding, groping migrant mobs.” The Cologne police had tweeted New Year’s greetings and linked to information on celebrating safely in a series of messages in various languages, including in Arabic.
The city was the site of mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 by mostly North African men, whom the far right has taken to calling “rapefugees.” There have been no more attacks of that magnitude, but the far right across Europe often employs the racist trope that immigrants and refugees are more prone to commit sexual assaults. Besides racism and fear-mongering, there is little to back up that claim. A report in 2016 by Germany’s federal showed that refugees were responsible for only 3.6 percent of the sexual offences in Germany in 2015.
Just as I wonder whose “freedom to pester” the Frenchwomen signatories defend, I wonder too which women they represent. Deneuve and the others are affluent, mostly white, older women. Where are the young women, the working-class women, the women of color who have little power to speak out — either to say no or to so vociferously defend men’s freedom to “hit on women” or to “steal a kiss”?
Soon after the Cologne mass sexual assault, Allison Pearson, a columnist for the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, answered those questions in a repulsive and unashamedly racist way when she wrote about 18-year-old Michelle, who said she and her friends were surrounded by 30 men who molested them and then stole their belongings. “If you are doctrinally commanded to cover up your women then the sight of a woman like the lovely, blonde Michelle (emphasis mine), who is both uncovered and happily self-confident, provokes temptation, and this makes you angry,” wrote Pearson, herself white and blonde.
I have yet to read an article about sex education workshops in Europe for migrant or asylum-seeking women. In fact, as hard as those workshops seem to work at mitigating the supposed fact that immigrants and refugees are more prone to commit sexual assaults, it is refugee women and female asylum seekers who are at great risk from sexual violence — be it from smugglers along the way, in refugee camps where they are often terrified to use toilets because they are often unlit and unlocked, and even from reception-center staff at countries where they are ostensibly safe.
Instead, sex-education workshops in Europe are essentially sessions to teach “those men” (read: brown/black) not to sexually assault “our women” — white and blonde, like “lovely Michelle.” Deneuve, et al. are not defending brown or black men’s “freedom to pester.” The men and the “culture” of “sexual freedom” they are defending against #MeToo are “our men” — white, affluent and of Deneuve’s milieu. Men such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief who reportedly paid $6 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed by a woman from Guinea who said he had sexually assaulted her as she attempted to clean his hotel room in New York City in 2011. After his arrest in New York, some French women told media outlets that it was an open secret in Paris that Strauss-Kahn had sexually harassed and abused women, but the behavior was explained away using excuses uncannily similar to the language used in the letter by Deneuve, et al.
Sexual harassment and abuse are wrong, everywhere and regardless of who commits them. All women deserve to be free of sexual harassment and abuse. If Deneuve and her fellow signatories cannot grasp those simple facts, I suggest that France begin sex education workshops that will help them understand “European sexual norms and social codes.”