You Are Not Alone, You Can Defend Yourself
Every second female student in Germany is sexually harassed or suffers violence during her years at university. A day of action at Freie Universität against harassment, discrimination, and violence drew public attention to the problem.
Jun 17, 2020
There is a furious and forceful outcry: Two dozen students at Freie Universität are chanting an accusation, protesting violence against women. They stomp and point a finger at the machos. Students and faculty hurrying through the building on this February morning take a moment to stop, look, and listen to the protest.
The emotional climax of the choreographed protest song is a line repeated many times, “And it wasn’t my fault, where I was or what I was wearing!” The words allude to the fact that women are often blamed for the violence they experience.
The students adapted the protest performance Un violador en tu camino [A Rapist in Your Path] from the feminist collective Las Tesis, a group in Chile that started a mass movement in November 2019. Since then, more and more women around the world have taken up the chanting.
The performance took place during the Day of Action against Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Violence at the University, which was organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center at Freie Universität in February, before the coronavirus crisis hit Europe. Before that, the students had dealt with the issue in a gender and diversity seminar taught within the general professional preparation (ABV) course entitled “MeToo und die Universität.” They presented the results of their work in the form of a public exhibit. The day of action also included other performances, lectures, and a panel discussion.
More than Half of All Female Students Are Affected by Sexual Assault
Heike Pantelmann, managing director of the Margherita von Brentano Center, referred to it as an omnipresent problem at German universities. Of 12,000 female students in Germany who were interviewed for a Europe-wide study, more than half indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment or violence during their years in college. The harassment or violence came almost exclusively from men. The largest group of perpetrators is other students. Lecturers and professors account for somewhat less than seven percent of the acts of violence.
The reported cases ranged from ambiguous allusions to unwanted invitations and touching to threats of rape and assault. Heike Pantelmann pointed out that sexual harassment in the workplace takes place above all where the power gap is particularly large and the bosses are male. She said that overall, this applies to German universities, as they are still organized hierarchically and are male dominated.
Don’t Just Smile Away Sexist “Jokes”
In another performance, students Berfin Yildirim, Franziska Wohlfahrt, Rosalina Höfner, and Annkathrin Nagelsdiek took up incidents that impressively demonstrated sexism in everyday university life. These were all incidents that they had experienced themselves or that took place in their circle of friends. For example: A female student is stamped as a humorless blue stocking because she does not want to smile away a sexist remark veiled as a “joke.” A male student enrolled in theater studies “instructs” a female student that men should become directors and women should be in the prompter box. A professor grabs a female student’s buttocks in a fully occupied auditorium. The four chanted in a chorus: “You are not alone! You can defend yourself!”
The students hope that the day of action campaign will make the problem more visible to all the members of the university and will help to reduce discrimination and violence at the university.
How can we facilitate respectful cooperation within the university?
“Freie Universität must protect all of its members from sexual harassment and violence,” stressed the professor of Japanese studies Verena Blechinger-Talcott, who also spoke about personal experiences with sexist discrimination. Professor Blechinger-Talcott, who is the vice president of Freie Universität responsible for equality and diversity, said that all employees of Freie Universität need to be made aware of the issue, violations need to be sanctioned immediately, and points of contact for those affected need to be created and made known. This is crucial because many students are dependent on a lecturer or professor. In 2019 in cooperation with the Working Group against Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Violence, the university adopted guidelines requiring respectful treatment of each other.
End of Impunity
The feminist activist Amanda Mitrovich Paniagua traveled to Germany from Chile. In a fully occupied seminar room, she told about the founding of the COFEU (Coordinadora Feminista Universitaria) commission, which would like to enforce binding guidelines for behavior at all Chilean universities. Every year there are still hundreds of sexual assaults at universities across Chile, which are possible primarily because the lecturers and university officials protect the perpetrators or take no legal action. With numerous actions, feminist activists in Chile have called for an end to impunity, effective sanctions for the perpetrators, and better protection. The Un Violador en tu camino performance, which later drew so much attention, was also created within these activities.
Heike Pantelmann said she invited Amanda Mitrovich Paniagua to Freie Univerfsität because the activist, as well as the feminist movement in Chile and Latin America in general, is so committed and combative. Pantelmann said she hopes that feminists in Germany will be infected by this immense mobilization force and added, “Frankly, I think it’s very nice when we let the supposed edges of the world show us in Berlin what activism can look like today.”
The original German version of this article was published on May 13, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.