Several months before moving to Brussels a friend linked me to this documentary project called ‘Femme de la rue’ that explored street harassment on the streets of Brussels. You can see a short clip of it here:
The video shows a woman walking through certain areas of the city and the harassment she receives going about her day, the stares, the sexual invitations and the all around attitude of the woman-as-commodity.
Now, my friend linked me to this and I was made aware that this was a problem in Brussels. Like it is a problem in Ireland ( and everywhere else where men see us primarily as receptacles for their ‘desire’).However, I have been living here a month and had not experienced this side of Brussels at all. I believed that I must be living in an area in which it wasn’t so prolific.
I do remember a comment made to me in passing by a man which I couldn’t understand and a lot of looks and stares from people as I walked down the street. However, I just assumed that these were the usual looks and comments I would get in Dublin for my often Masculine-of-Center presentation and general queerness.
That was until my two friends came to visit me for the long weekend. My two friends are wonderful, intelligent and amazing human beings. I like to say that I choose my friends wisely. They are also feminine presenting queer women. While spending three days with them in Brussels my eyes were opened. For the first time while here, in a group of girls, with no male companions, I experienced a barrage of personal space invasions and harassment.
On the first night in a bar just across the square from my house one of my friends has her hat taken and her ass grabbed by a guy. A guy who later goes and harasses some women at the bar next to us and creates a cavity around him in which all women have fled to safer areas of the club. This in itself is not an unusual occurrence in any club in Ireland either so while completely reprehensible and bile worthy it unfortunately isn’t anything really unusual to write home about. Though it should be. It should be something written in large glittering letters involving manacles and a hefty dose of social stigma and ostracisation.
Move to our second stop of the night. A small bar that resembled a big wooden conservatory and sells really good, inexpensive wine and Belgian beers. I will be blogging about a couple of these places in time, bare with me. With an authentic air and with feel good vibes we enter. We order our wines and beers from the Barwomen and we grab a seat. The pub is nearly empty, me and my two friends and a few guys over near the bar.
We sit and we chat for an hour or so and then we are approached by this guy, he talks to us, asks our names. Nothing all together nefarious to be sure, he’s just chatting after all. It is obvious that he is interrupting up, it is obvious that he is making a choice to disturb us. His friend joins him. I am sitting on the outside of the table, my two friends are sitting on the inside, away from the two men. At one point the older man puts his arm on my shoulder and says “I am going to kiss you” before placing several kisses on my head. I froze. I am very aware of my personal space and it is not to be invaded without explicit permission. You are my friend/partner, touch away. You are a stranger/acquaintance, keep your distance. This is pretty much how most decent people work.
The kissing man walks away, probably having felt that I was rigid and that it was a step too far. I didn’t say anything. I was dumbstruck. I have responded to such invasions before without a thought, but I was comfortable, with friends that I had missed, not expecting such blatant attention. Why? Because to be honest I am generally not the target of such harassment when I am in the company of my friends. I am the type often seen as less attractive to the heterosexual cis male gaze. My friends are not. But I was the nearest female within reach so he kissed me.
His friend asks if he can stay awhile. My friend says no, that we are talking. He sits down still. At some point the other man comes by and kisses my head again. I don’t know what to do, I am still processing. Several beers has not helped my processing ability. The sitting man shifts his attention to each of us in turn. I am last. He mentions something I am interested in, something that I am quite enthusiastic about , I ask him about it (Read: Don’t feel the animals) and he answers, then the conversation shifts and he starts complimenting me. I look at my friend and give her a kick under the table and we finish our drinks before we get up and leave. I live two minutes away. I am sure to make sure they are not following us. I would not be surprised. Luckily they do not.
The next morning I lead my friends to breakfast Nirvana a ten minute walk from my house. It’s cold and we are wrapped up in scarves, gloves and coats. We are in high spirits, they had gotten in last night and this was our first full day. We walk side by side, smiling and chatting, happy and comfortable in each other’s presence and looking forward to a good feed. We are nearing the restaurant when a guy walks by us and says something in Dutch that is quite clearly an insult from his intonation. We look it up. Whores. It was like something directly out of the video linked above. Again I was shocked. I had been here a month with no such experiences.
I became more aware. I notice the overly familiar looks, the lengthy examinations and the prolonged staring as we walk down streets and go about our day. At one point I actually see a guy do the most unusual 180 turn in order to check out my friends. It is exaggerated and in the exaggeration the intent is made more stark. Usually I am the kind of girl that lives in my head. I do not pay that much attention to the people around me and when I am focused externally it is usually in terms of architecture, nature and food. I am usually quite oblivious to the male gaze. It is not something I have ever been overly concerned with, though I have had a number of run ins with overly friendly men it is something that for me is an annoying and unwelcome rarity. This weekend was a real eye opener.
I know street harassment. I have experienced it and I have seen it directed against every single one of my female friends at some point or another. But this weekend it really hit home.
I am the crisis manager, I take care of my friends, I protect them in situations like this and several times in the space of a weekend I had been left stunned. I have not experienced such blatant invasion of my personal space ( outside of reference to my sexuality) since I dared to journey out in a short skirt in Dublin’s city center, five years ago, to show my friends that it was in fact possible for me to wear a skirt and rock it. That night I had my ass squeezed as I walked down the street and the guy received a tongue lashing that left him standing shocked and open mouthed in the middle of Temple Bar and likely left him raw for a week. But I had forgotten. I had become complacent. I knew how to handle the social, homophobic and the virulent gender police harassment often directed at me. But I had only really dealt with continuous sexual street harassment as an other, as an outsider, when it was directed towards my friends. This was directed towards all three of us, so blatantly and unashamedly that I had no choice BUT to see it.
And now that I have been made aware of it, now that I have seen it, I cannot unsee it. I cannot unexperience it. There is a darker side of Brussels and I have seen its pestilence. It is not alone in this but it has left a bad and bitter taste in my mouth as I realise my own blindness. I was not unaware of this phenomenon. I am a feminist. I support anti-street harassment campaigns in Ireland and everywhere. But I had managed to ignore the less insidious, the more subtle forms of oppression and possessive body policing. It wasn’t happening to me, so while I didn’t think it wasn’t happening I had presumed that because I was not experiencing it that it was not as widespread in my area as elsewhere. I had been blind. And thus I had been one more support propping up the perpetuation of the despicable harassment and gender/body policing of the world that we live in because I had forgotten about its existence while I was not experiencing it.
I will not be forgetting this again soon.
Word to the weary, this goes for everything else too, transphobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, violence, ableism, ageism and a list of blindspots and self involvement within us that goes on ad nauseum to the great disgrace of human kind.