By Serita Braxton
Several times a month I see women sharing stories and seeking advice about scary incidents that happen to them in Berlin. They detail stories of being verbally harassed and physically intimidated while walking alone or in public transport. Those experiences are terrifying in the moment and leave them shaken up long after. Sometimes they post their stories online to seek advice but mostly to seek support and feel less alone. Each time dozens of other women share their own stories and words of encouragement in the comments. With the outpouring of stories of how women are made to feel unsafe in public spaces, how safe is Berlin?
Last summer many women in Berlin were frightened by reports that six women had liquid sprayed on them by a man riding by on a bicycle. In a majority of those cases, the liquid had been identified as some sort of acid and caused damage to the faces and eyes of most of the women. With no new reports, news coverage of these incidents came to a halt and the answer to whether all of these incidents were committed by the same person remained unclear.
Then there was the unforgettable and horrific incident at the Hermannstraße underground station. A woman was simply walking down the stairs when a man came up and forcefully kicked her from behind sending her flying down several stairs. After searching for months, the offender was finally captured and sentenced to jail. (While in prison the man was brutally retaliated against.)
Even though I personally feel much safer walking alone at night than I did most of the time in the US, I have still experienced harassment. The ones most ingrained in my memory are of a man making unintelligible comments to me on an S-Bahn train, after I ignored him he stood in front of me unzipping his pants. There were several other people on the train who saw this and said nothing.
A few weeks later I witness a man as he walked around the Stadmitte underground station behind several women with his hands in the front of his pants. Then turned his attention to me saying, “Machst du Sex?” I screamed at him to fuck off. Both times I felt incredibly disgusted but it was important for me to not to let the poor behavior of a few guys to take away my ability to feel safe.
While stories like these may put women on high alert as they move through public spaces, the reality is that overall Berlin is a safe city to live in. Crime rates in all of Germany are reported as the lowest they’ve been since 1992 and the rates in which crimes are solved are up. Specifically in Berlin, violent crime rates are the lowest they’ve been all decade. (You can view the full report of crime rates in 2017 here.)
Despite the promising statistics, there may be moments where you’re put in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation. Many discreet self defense devices are illegal in Germany (such as cellphone cases with brass knuckles or pepper spray – only spray to ward off animals is allowed and if you use it on a human without being in serious danger you may get in trouble). For a bit of confidence and some moves to defend yourself you could sign up for self defense classes for women at Pretty Deadly.
In any instance, unfortunately we can’t control the behavior of others but we can try to support those who have been victimized or made to feel uncomfortable. We can also do our best (while also remaining safe) to intervene if we witness inappropriate behavior. Like the next time I caught a man staring at a woman in the U-Bahn with his hand moving around the front of his pants I yelled at him and he got off the train at the next stop.
The Berlin Welcome Center offers support and a hotline for women who are victims of all forms of violence. If you’re in need of assistance call +49 (0) 8000 116 016. If you’d like to report an incident or crime to the police you can call +49 (0) 30 / 4664-4664 or file a report online. And of course, when in immediate danger dial 110.