• linguanatolinapl


Marlies Humpelstetter is a politics and philosophy student at the University of Glasgow. In her essay, she discusses how the public debate surrounding gender-based violence in Austria has undergone a

significant paradigm shift. By analysing the case of an Austrian politician, she aims to draw attention to the deadly link between everyday sexism and femicides.

In 2018, Sigi Maurer, a young female politician from the Austrian Green Party, published screenshots of

Facebook messages, which were sent to her from the account of a Viennese pub owner (generally referred

to as the “Bierwirt” by Austrian media). In them, the sender writes that he saw the politician walk past the

shop. This was followed by a slew of extremely vulgar, demeaning, and sexist comments. Maurer stated

that she made the images public on her social media, because under Austrian law she had no legal recourse against the author of such insulting messages. Legally speaking, women just have to put up with it.

In an absurd turn of events, however, Maurer did find herself in a court room – not as the plaintiff, but as

the defendant. The pub owner, from whose Facebook account the messages were sent, sued Maurer for

defamation. He claimed that his computer was openly available to everyone in the pub and that any of his

customers could have sent the messages. Never mind the distinctive writing style and punctuation, which

matched the pub owner’s other Facebook posts. Never mind the testimony of customers who allege

that the pub owner has a habit of catcalling and harassing female passerbys.

“I am convinced, that the plaintiff is lying”[1],

admitted the judge after hearing the case. Yet he still ruled that Maurer had not been able to sufficiently

prove the pub owner’s authorship of the messages and therefore pronounced her guilty of defamation.

“What was done to you and the fact that it is not punishable [by law] is a different story”[2],

the judge said to her. Maurer later appealed the judgement, and the case was eventually thrown out after two and a half excruciating years.

In the continued absence of any legal protection, it is likely that Maurer’s ordeal will only serve as a

deterrent for those who want to speak out against the harassment they face because of their gender.

Unfortunately, this was also not the last time that the Austrian public would hear about the pub owner.

There is power in words.

I remember, that when a young woman was murdered by her husband in the parking lot of my local supermarket, three years ago, the newspapers wrote about a relationship drama, which had "escalated". A few articles mentioned existing restraining orders against the husband, hinting at a long history of domestic violence, which preceded the crime. Some echoed the murderer's claim that his wife wanted to take away his children. This practice is exemplary of the subtle victim blaming which is common in cases like this. "If she had told me that I can see the children, then I wouldn't have killed her.", one newspaper quoted the murderer. This focus on the killer's reasoning often supports the framing of a woman's murder as the tragic result of a domestic dispute. It obscures, however, the link between misogyny and deadly violence.

A society that has no interest in combatting misogyny at every level will necessarily be surprised and impotent when it finds itself confronted again and again with the murder of women.

In April 2021, the particularly cruel murder of a Viennese woman sparked a nationwide discussion

about gender-based violence in Austria. It is not the first time that a shocking case led to a surge of

interest in the topic, this time however, it coincided with the rise of the “Ni Una Menos” movement in

South America and the “Reclaim These Streets” protests, which took place in the wake of the Sarah

Everard murder in the UK. This international climate spilled over into Austria and created the

conditions for a significant paradigm shift to take place. Instead of talking about the seventh murder

victim of the year, who just so happened to be a woman (again), we have now started discussing the

concerning number of femicides in Austria[3]. Thiscons titutes a crucial reframing of the conversation. A

femicide is the murder of a woman because she is a woman. It redirects the focus away from relationship

disputes, custody battles and alleged affairs and creates space for a more substantial discussion regarding the role of deeply rooted sexism, both at the individual and the systemic level, in sparking and perpetuating violence against women.

In the midst of this national debate, the media started reporting about yet another murder, the ninth femicide of the year in Austria. This time, however, the murder suspect and ex-partner of the victim was

someone familiar to the public. It turned out to be the pub owner, who had previously been accused of

sending deeply sexist messages to the Green Party politician Sigi Maurer.

She later made a statement on Twitter in which she said that the fact that the perpetrator of the murder is

apparently the pub owner is “shocking for me personally, but irrelevant in the matter”. I disagree. This story constitutes a unique case where the misogyny of the presumed murderer was made public to a wide audience even before it escalated to deadly violence. It draws attention to and lays bare the mechanisms behind femicides: deeply held contempt for women, reversal of victim and perpetrator and the ability of misogynistic men to act with impunity.

Helene Sorger, Selfportrait, Photograph, Austria, 2019.

It might be true that not every man who has sent vile or demeaning messages to a woman is going to become a murderer. Perhaps not every catcaller, harasser, or stalker is going to become violent. Maybe the guy who follows a woman home at night will not try to physically harm her and neither will the one who whistles at her or the one who corners her in a club. Or maybe he will. It is time that we recognize that misogynistic men inherently pose a threat to women. Femicides and gender-based violence are just

the tip of an ugly and frequently trivialised iceberg of everyday sexism. A society that has no interest in combatting misogyny at every level will necessarily be surprised and impotent when it finds itself confronted again and again with the murder of women. The way we talk about these crimes matters and the way we address the smaller insults, the psychological violence, and the casual sexism matters too.

[1] Reibenwein and Temel, Causa "Craftbeer", 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Scherndl & Hagen, "Tod Der Trafikantin“, 2021.