Germany's 'fisher king' contest should be open to women, court rules

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Germany's 'fisher king' contest should be open to women, court rules
Men compete in the Fisher's Day festivities on July 20th 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

An Allgäu woman has won a significant court battle in her fight to partake in the town's annual Fisher's Day festival alongside men. Will it affect other clubs around Germany?


For years, Christine Renz was one of thousands of spectators standing on the sidelines as men hopped into the local stream of Memmingen, Bavaria, and battled to catch the biggest trout.

According to her own club - the Fisher's Day Association - women aren't allowed to compete for the coveted title of Fisher King in the annual festival because they would be putting local traditions in jeopardy. 

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But Renz's longstanding battle against the association has now been supported by the Memmingen district court, which has overruled an appeal by the association to protect their right to 'men only' fishing.

Now, the case could have far-reaching ramifications for other 'male-only' traditions across Germany.


In his ruling on Wednesday, judge Konrad Beß said that the “special rights” outlined for male members in the association's statutes are “no longer justified" by the argument of protection tradition. 

In principle, clubs are free to set their own rules for taking part in events - but, according to the court, if they treat members differently, this has to be justified by the purpose of the organisation. The custom of fishing in Memmingen is, however, "not an absolutely faithful replica" of a historical event. 

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That means women can participate without endangering regional customs and values, Beß said. 

Fisher's Day 'five hundred years old'

Every summer on Fisher's Day, participants jump into the Memminger Stadtbach (the local stream) and fetch trout out of the water with giant nets.

Whoever catches the biggest fish is crowned the Fishing King. According to the association, this tradition can be traced back to the 16th century, when the stream was fished once year to clean the waters. Women have been excluded from this by statute since 1931.

Jürgen Ziegler, the 2018 Fisher King, sits on his throne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

What does this mean for equality?

The judgment of the Memmingen district court could set a precedent for women's participation in other male-only traditions in Germany. 

The ruling went "beyond the individual case" to be "of particular importance for the general public," he said.

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The first chairman of the Fisher's Day Association, Michael Ruppert, was dismayed at the ruling. "This is a day that could affect many, many clubs all over Germany," he said, adding that it was “a shame that club autonomy was not put in the foreground".

Following the judgement, the Bavarian State Association for the Fostering of Regional Traditions called for a calmer debate on the issue. The assumption that customs would or should not change is a historical misunderstanding, said a spokesperson for the Department for Customs, Costume, Language, Michael Ritter. 

"We just have to recognise that there is no loss in change, but rather a gain," he said.


'Memmingen Fisher's Day will change'

However, the ruling on Wednesday is not yet a final decision as to whether women are allowed to participate equally at the Fisherman's Day in Memmingen.

Due to the significance of the case, the regional court has allowed the possibility of an appeal at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe. Having already lost its first appeal at the district court, the Fisher's Day Association will decide whether to take this step at a delegates' meeting on Thursday.

Christiane Renz, the complainant against the Fisher's Day rules, says she's ready for next year's event. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

But Memmingen's Mayor Manfred Schilder (CSU) emphasised on Wednesday that the judgment of the regional court was clear.

"It is now a matter of organising Fisher's Day accordingly," he said. "Our home festival, the Memmingen Fisher's Day, will change"

Renz, meanwhile, is already anticipating submerging her feet in the water of the stream at the next Fisher's Day. 

"The shoes are ready," she said. "I'll be at the stream on time to jump in." 


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