Dirndl comment ignites sexism debate in Germany

  • Article by: MELISSA EDDY and CHRIS COTTRELL , New York Times
  • Updated: January 29, 2013 - 8:26 PM

A politician's aside about a female journalist's looks tapped a well of frustration over harassment.

BERLIN - A comment by a male politician about how well a female journalist could "fill out a dirndl" has prompted an outcry from women across Germany and a furious debate over the prevalence of casual sexism in Europe's largest economy.

The unwelcome aside about the woman and the dirndl, the cleavage-revealing traditional dress, by Rainer Bruederle, a leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, led thousands of women to take to Twitter, sharing stories of humiliation, embarrassment and harassment under the hashtag "aufschrei," German for outcry, in the days since the controversy arose.

Newspapers and television talk shows have parsed the encounter between Bruederle and the journalist, Laura Himmelreich, which took place on the eve of a party congress last year. Himmelreich first wrote about it for the newsweekly Stern after Bruederle last week was named the top candidate for the Free Democrats in September's parliamentary election.

The article and ensuing furor came less than a month after the leading candidate for the left-leaning Social Democrats declared that Chancellor Angela Merkel benefited from a "women's bonus" with the electorate. That drew criticism, though not on the scale of the recent controversy.

Bruederle tapped a deep vein of resentment among women, particularly over their treatment in the workplace. Many professional women say gender relations are surprisingly backward for a developed country and years behind the United States when it comes to workplace equality and, in particular, sexual innuendo.

"Sexual harassment is all too often viewed as a trivial offense, taken as a misunderstanding of the situation because 'it was meant as a compliment,'" said Sarah Elsuni, an interim professor for public law and gender studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.

She welcomed the debate for drawing attention to what she sees as a serious social problem that usually goes unpunished, especially in the working world. "Women are too often afraid to bring the issue up when it happens."

Nicole Simon, 42, a social media consultant in Germany who also contributed to the debate, described the outpouring as an example of the years of pent-up frustration over episodes that are so common that women learn to simply block them out.

"You are confronted with unbelievable headwinds if you are a woman," said Doris Buchholz, leader of a national group of women associated with the Free Democrats.

According to the Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, 58 percent of German women say they have been subjected to sexual harassment, with more than 42 percent of the cases happening on the job.

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