World News

Sexism or compliment? German politician stokes debate

BERLIN (Reuters) - A female German politician has triggered a fierce debate by accusing a former ambassador of sexism after he failed to recognize her at a conference and then said he was not expecting such a young and beautiful woman as a speaker.

Sawsan Chebli, a 39-year-old state secretary in the Berlin city government, said she was sitting in the front row waiting to speak at a meeting of the Indo-German Society but was not recognized by the head of the group, Hans-Joachim Kiderlen.

When he realized his mistake, the retired former German ambassador to India reportedly said: “I wasn’t expecting such a young woman. And you are also so beautiful.”

Chebli, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, went ahead with her speech but posted on her Facebook page afterwards that she was in shock.

“Of course, I’m always experiencing sexism, but I have never experienced anything like what happened today,” she said.

Her comments prompted an outpouring in German newspapers and social media, already abuzz as million of women across the world have been sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse in an online campaign using the hashtag #MeToo.

Chebli, a former spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry born to Palestinian refugee parents, was swamped with insults on her Facebook page, including suggestions that she wear a Muslim headscarf if she does not want to receive compliments.

She also received messages of support, including from women who had similar experiences, including Teresa Buecker, editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine Edition F.

“I have also been called up to the stage as the ‘beautiful speaker’ - it is degrading and disrespectful,” Buecker wrote on Twitter.

Kiderlen wrote to Chebli to apologize for his “inappropriate address and greeting”, the Tagesspiegel daily reported on Thursday.

Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by David Goodman