When Beer Breeds Violence, Oktoberfest's Help Center For Women

A waitress at Munich's Oktoberfest
A waitress at Munich's Oktoberfest
Sabine Buchwald

MUNICH — Munich's Oktoberfest has an ugly side. Alexandra Stigger is all too familiar with it but says it's nevertheless a great celebration. Stigger, 29, is a Munich native who grew up attending it every year, and now she works there — not in one of the beer tents but in a service center where the Red Cross, a lost-and-found and the women's support center where Stigger works are housed.

Known as the "security point," the name is meant to speak to foreign visitors who don't know about existing help centers in Munich. First created for the 2003 Oktoberfest, the security point's financing comes from the Munich government and a growing number of sponsors. As a social worker who specializes in trauma therapy, Stigger joined the team in 2012 and now coordinates security point staff and acts as spokeswoman.

Stigger is the schedule planner for the center, where some of the staff are young women majoring in social work. A social worker and five to eight helpers work as teams. More teams are on duty on Fridays and Saturdays than on weekdays.

It's when the tents are full, the beer flowing, when most incidents happen, requiring the point's five qualified social workers and 45 female volunteers to spring into action. These vary from fighting couples, to emotional breakdowns and to women simply being overwhelmed by the hubbub. Women who have lost their handbags are also helped here.

Last year, the service point helped 156 women and girls, which may not sound like a lot in view of Oktoberfest's 6.4 million visitors. Stigger suspects that a great many more women could have used help but didn't know there was any.

When women have too much to drink, lose their money, or their cell phone batteries die, they may suddenly feel very alone amid the mass of revelers. This also applies to men, "but shame tolerance levels are much higher in men than they are in women," Stigger says. Foreign women who may not be able to locate their group or manage to elbow through the crowds to get back to it may be particularly affected. Stigger says many Oktoberfest visitors underestimate the situation, especially first-timers.

"Typical clients at the service point are tourists who haven't yet booked a hotel room in Munich," Stigger says. "This may make the women more vulnerable."

Stigger and her colleagues don't take the attitude that women who need their services are to blame. In fact, "We believe that a woman should be able to walk through the festival naked and not be molested," Stigger says. What an idea, especially given just how uninhibited the atmosphere can be particularly on Saturday nights. But Stigger is dead serious when she repeats that predators are responsible for their behavior, not whatever they consider to be the trigger.

Violence amid revelry

Four women who visited the security point last year had suffered serious sexual assaults. Stigger accompanied one rape victim, a visitor from abroad, to the hospital and stayed with her until it was confirmed that that she could fly home to her family. The service point's main aim is to impart a "feeling of security," Stigger says.

Every year they make sure the center is cozy, with armchairs and plants, that there are changes of clothing available, and also something to eat. Just spending some time here is enough for many women to recover their strength. And for some, the opportunity to clear their head, recharge their cell phones and get in touch with their friends is all they need.

Stigger is also concerned for the security of the staffers. Two are usually sent out together when they drive a woman home, to her hotel or the railroad station mission if she has nowhere else to go, for example. This individual treatment is time-intensive, but no one wishes to leave clients to their own devices. If there isn't so much to do, then teams of two go out and patrol the more dangerous areas on the festival grounds.

A grassy hill that is a sled run in winter is one of these places. During Oktoberfest some men try to sleep off their drunkenness here. But it's not a safe place for tired women. Stigger relates how she found one female American soldier here suffering from traumatic memories of her tour of duty, which was apparently awakened by the festival's intense sensory experience. Through gentle questioning, she was able to get the woman back to the present and reoriented, Stigger says.

But right now her main priority is the security point and the "Sichere Wiesn" (Secure Wiesn — Wiesn being another German word for Oktoberfest) campaign that has a free app, "Wiesn Protect." It was downloaded 19,000 times in 2013.

Every year the services become better known and accepted, Stigger says. Women should feel safe knowing help is available if need be, and importantly, that feelings of shame are just not part of the equation.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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