The challenge of integrating immigrants from the non-western world is not new to Europe. But a large influx of new migrants over the last decade, and a significant increase in harassment and sexual assault against women across multiple European countries, make it one that Europe can no longer avoid addressing.
This story has its origins in the decades of economic recovery after World War Two, when many European countries faced a growing worker shortage for industry work. ‘Guest worker’ programs were created, notably in Germany, on the assumption that such workers would return home. But many workers preferred to stay in Europe and pursued family reunification. Jobs and welfare entitlements made Germany preferable to Turkey, France preferable to Algeria.
Meanwhile ideas of national sovereignty and national identity came under scrutiny. The horrors of national socialism and fascism were used to discredit the idea of national borders and the nation-state itself. As part of the process of European integration, states began to relax border controls. Countries such as the Netherlands sought to atone for their insufficient resistance against German deportations of Dutch Jews during World War Two by relaxing immigration restrictions in a quest to realize a ‘multicultural society’.
Multiculturalism also meant that little effort was made to promote the cultural assimilation of immigrants and their children. ‘Dish cities’ — cultural enclaves watching satellite television broadcasts from abroad — became a feature in many parts of Europe. What was over-looked is that multiculturalism is often at odds with a commitment to universal women’s rights, particularly women’s autonomy and security in the public sphere.
Europe’s leaders did not realize that opening the gates brought not just guest workers, but also their culture. Sometimes — often — the cultures of newcomers contained misogynistic norms incompatible with the modern notions of women’s rights that had made rapid progress in Europe from the 1960s on. Suddenly, Europeans were confronted with the unfamiliar: traditional practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation and honor violence.
When I lived in Holland in the 1990s, interference into issues surrounding traditional practices was generally discouraged. Confronted with evidence of abusive behavior by men, Dutch experts frequently empathized with migrant women, but remained reluctant to wade into controversial cultural issues.
Multiculturalism was sacrosanct. The consensus among the leadership of both the center-left and the center-right was that drawing attention to the mistreatment of women and girls in immigrant communities would only stigmatize immigrants, which in turn would impede their integration. If many women in these immigrant communities became collateral damage, it was lamentable but unavoidable. There were other, bigger issues and events demanding the political class’s urgent attention: economic downturns, the European integration process and so on.
Even as dissident feminists began asking serious questions about the mistreatment of women, relativist dogmas continued to hold. In many cases, the European authorities looked away from child marriage, female genital mutilation, grooming gangs, even honor killings.
In the public sphere, women from migrant backgrounds were unable to enjoy the freedoms and autonomy available to European women. Across Europe, fully shrouded women were seen walking three feet behind their men. Teenage girls were removed from school and married off, their education and careers curtailed, their prospects of any kind of success in western society stunted. In many cases, the authorities turn a blind eye because these were issues for ‘them’ not ‘us’.
This ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality developed in large part because, prior to mass migration, west European countries were mostly homogeneous nations. There were differences of language and Christian denomination, to be sure, but European countries were essentially monochrome. For previously homogeneous societies, dealing with genuine heterogeneity while remaining tolerant was a formidable challenge.
Many migrants, especially those from Muslim-majority countries, brought with them a different relationship between men and women. Women unaccompanied by a male guardian could be seen as prey: if a girl is left unaccompanied or unveiled, it means no one cares to protect her.
Europeans were at first ignorant of all this and later in denial about it. Almost no one considered the possibility that imported misogyny would one day come for European women too.
My new book, Prey, documents the wave of sexual harassment, assault and rape that followed the surge in immigration that occurred in the wake of the Arab revolutions and reached a peak in 2015 and 2016. Politicians and the mainstream media have done their best to downplay this post-2015 wave of harassment or assault, leaving populists and far-right-wing groups to exploit it (and to exaggerate it) for electoral advantage.
There is also a class dimension to the lack of open discussion. Much of the sexual harassment and many of the assaults that I examine didn’t happen to women who were part of the #MeToo movement or had a prominent cultural voice, but to those who were stuck in the working-class neighborhoods where almost all immigrants settle.
I am not one of those who sees the end of immigration as a solution. I myself have been an immigrant more than once. Yet it cannot be right that some victims of sexual violence are heard, while others are not, simply because the attackers were asylum seekers or economic migrants.
Two decades ago I called for the full integration of migrants and the protection of migrant women through the application of universal women’s rights — with no cultural exceptions. I remain convinced that there is no other viable way forward. Only when Europe’s elites acknowledge the harm that has been done by years of misguided policies will we finally take that road. I wrote Prey partly to make European men see that the victims of imported misogyny are no longer ‘them’, but could easily be their own wives, sisters and daughters — even mothers.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights is published by HarperCollins ($29). This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.