We are astonished and appalled after reading your latest comments on the sexism debate in the German weekly "SPIEGEL". Your point of view concerns us and we are seeking a conversation with you.
First: the debate around Rainer Brüderle’s conduct can not be compared with the subsequent sexism debate. By doing so, one reduces a structural problem to a single incident. The Brüderle case was simply a spark for a long overdue public discussion. Sexism is an everyday issue that affects everyone. For many it is part of daily life at work, at their schools or universities, on the street; in their private lives, as well as in public space. Those who have followed the recent debate closely, had to come to the conclusion that sexism is a societal issue that affects countless people. Many of our European neighbours and other countries all around the world are engaged in similar debates, which proves how critical this topic is in regard to matters such as equality, coexistence and freedom.
We expect a president to weigh in on the concerns of his or her citizens in the public debate comprehensively and to take up position. In particular, we miss sensitivity and respect towards all the many women who have experienced sexism in your remarks. These lack awareness of social issues such as sexism. Instead of actually acknowledging the reasons for the discussion in which many people are currently participating, you simply state that you cannot identify a “serious, nation-wide misconduct of men towards women.” This notion of collective male guilt is exactly what supporters of #Aufschrei do not endorse. The sheer volume of experiences brought to light exemplifies that sexism and sexual assault are part of a collective structurally supported phenomenon.
Sexual assaults and sexism usually happen within hierarchies; higher positions within businesses and society are abused, and the reliance of individiuals towards others is exploited. The everyday experiences which were made public during “#Aufschrei” are backed up by scientific evidence: the study "Lebenssituation, Sicherheit und Gesundheit von Frauen" (Living Situation, Safety and Health of Women), launched by "Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend” (the German federal ministry for family, seniors, women and the youth or BMFSFJ), concludes that 58 % of all women involved in the study had experienced sexual harassment. These anonymous statistics have now been turned into concrete reports about experiences thanks to “#Aufschrei” and the following debate. These events should sadden us all, but also encourage us to take action. Every person has the responsibility to make a difference within society, and the political system has this responsibility aswell. Because you are right by concluding that cooperation without engagement does not work. This was the reason to start “#Aufschrei”.
Dismissing the debate around sexism by calling it exaggerated and a media hype not only does not do it justice but also treats it with contempt. Your judgement contradicts your wish for more political engagement by German citizens. Instead of addressing the problems of people that live here, you referred to the recent conflict in Mali; this however is a comparison that nobody should draw and only turns attention away from both issues. However, there is one point on which you are spot on: we are wasting time discussing the words of a single politician. Though, this is symptomatic and aligns perfectly with your objective: we can move this debate forward from discussing single incidents to the core of the issue only together and with the help of opinion leaders like you. Many citizens have proven that this issue is serious by sharing their stories, and even your fellow politicians have called for broad engagement. We don’t see this importance reflected in either your words or actions.
Using the word “Tugendfuror” (literally “fury of virtue”) you connect humiliating, injuring and traumatising experiences and the willingness to make these experience finally public, with the term “Furie” (“fury”). This derogatory term, much like “Hysterie” (“hysteria”), ridicules the anger of women and wrongly classifies it as being over-emotional. This only furthers centuries-old stereotypes of women – stereotypes that maintain sexist structures and stand in the way of gender justice. The supporters of “#Aufschrei” don’t call for outdated virtues, the opposite is true: we desire modern role models and gender equality. For us, this means that everyone of us can move freely, without the threat of being harassed or treated derogatorily, or to experience violence. The term “Tugend” (“virtue”) may have been appropriate during the time of “Emilia Galotti” where fathers decided which husbands their daughters should marry, but it is inappropriate for the people within this emancipatory movement. Other virtues which were expected from women in that time in history were to humbly lower their heads in the presence of men, to never have an opinion and to be “a virgin” until they were married. These perceptions of women need to belong to the past.
We ask to respect the emotions and experiences of the victims, and the work of the people who are committed to battle gender inequality. Many women have been silent too long and only recently have shown the courage to share their experiences. The vehemence stems from the massive amount of experiences that were made visible here. And this is exactly the reason why we must make sure that these experiences are taken seriously. At this point it is more then ever appropriate to listen, and stand in solidarity. This is a form of freedom as well: the freedom to talk about these experiences. It is not appropriate for someone in your position to publicly devalue these experiences and to make the courage of these people insignificant.
It concerns us deeply that you, as the President of the Federal Republic of Germany and an advocate of freedom, are distancing yourself from such an important debate and do not treat it as an important topic. This isn’t an “issue of women’s rights”, but a matter of gender equality which is grounded in the Constitution. Gender justice can only happen when everybody plays their part and takes responsibility – “this step should be taken by the entire society”, as you said so well. Maybe you should use the week before International Women’s Day to support the women in this country, and you should encourage to change this society so all people are able to live in freedom and with dignity.
We have added a scientific commentary by the University of Bielefeld and a selection of personal reports. Speak with the women around you, invite them to share their opinions and experiences. Read the stories told on twitter tagged #Aufschrei and posted on Alltagssexismus.de. Read them and listen carefully, then try again to call them a "furor of virtue" without further significance.
We'd like to end this letter with one of your quotes: "Together we should accept responsibility and take it seriously. We also have to correct each other when something is not working out the way it should". On that note: We are looking forward hearing from you!
With kind regards,