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On the streets of Cologne

By Gaia Manco

2005 Evening, I’m walking home with my roommate, we live in the 10th arrondissement: A man follows us, makes vulgar advances, we walk away, we ignore him. He doesn’t stop, we are afraid, he keeps on following us until we get to a busier avenue.

2008 Bastille food market, grocery shopping on a Saturday morning: I notice a man following me from one stall to the other, and he’s attempting to touch me under my skirt. At one fruit stall he goes for it, I’m still disgusted when I think of it, I turn around, I am furious but I don’t know what to say, he runs away.

2008 A Saturday night in summer: One of my best friends and I walk through the city centre, we are joining some friends in a bar in St Michel. First, we receive vulgar proposals, then we get insults shouted at us when we ignore the man. The bridge that we were crossing was full of people, no one stepped in.

2014 Biking towards Quer Street, near the city centre, where I had my German class after work: I was pushing my bike in a narrow pedestrian passage — there were some roadworks — a man touches my behind and walks away.

2014 Walking on Nanluoguxiang after dinner, a very popular pedestrian alley in a hutong neighbourhood: A man tries and touches me in my private parts, taking advantage of a blockage due to the amount of people.

These are just the episodes that I can recall right now, without thinking too much about it (yes, I have an excellent memory). In all cases it was a very quick thing, I barely had the time to realise and they were not serious enough, I thought, to report them to the police. I wouldn’t know who to report to, to be honest.

I am sure that I was not unlucky. If anything, I was “lucky” that in these past 10+ years of life around the globe nothing more serious than that has ever happened. So don’t tell me it’s Cologne, it’s the migrants from North Africa. Sexual aggressions, whether they’re violent or not, are a result of a culture that pervades everyone, men and women, in Europe and abroad.

People walk past the Cologne main train station in Cologne, western Germany on January 13, 2016 where dozens of sexual assaults were perpetrated against women on New Year's Eve.  (Patrik Stollarz/AFP)

People walk past the Cologne main train station in Cologne, western Germany on January 13, 2016 where dozens of sexual assaults were perpetrated against women on New Year’s Eve. (Patrik Stollarz/AFP)

A culture where women are at someone’s disposal, where they are a man’s property. And if they dare to go out by themselves, perhaps with other women and dress as they like, they are an open buffet tray for anyone to dig his hands in.

If there is something that Cologne must teach us, it is that sexual attacks against women are a daily occurrence that can happen at any time, in any city, therefore limiting our freedom as human beings of moving, working and having fun. If we can find one positive side in these post-Cologne days, it is that European society can, thanks to these events, realise what women go through everyday, and do everything it can to change it.

Not to change my dresses (or my snow jacket, which is what I was wearing during one instance) but to change the culture of men and women, starting from mass culture: TV, internet, movies.

The Cologne attacks are different in scale, in numbers, in intensity in one single place, but they are not new. They are part of the life of every woman since she was a child.

To eradicate this, we have to eradicate the roots of this violence by repeating one simple thing — even if repeating it makes me cry again and again — women are not at men’s disposal.

Attacks against women are born in an environment of inequality where women are considered inferior beings, that you can violate or protect, according to the role you play on that day.

This is why those who say “let’s protect our women” are in no way different. The Cologne attackers will agree with you. From the moment that you, as a European, say such a sentence, you are like them. There is no “our women”.

I thought that as a human being I belonged to myself: it takes only to go out for a walk to see how many think that I’m wrong and I should be put back in my place.

Gaia Manco is a journalist, podcaster, communication manager, trainer, feminist, traveller and home baker living between South Africa and Europe. More on

This is the English version of “Per le strade di Colonia“ first published here.

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