Being a woman in Brussels

I have never lived in a place where I feel my gender as strongly as I do here in Brussels. Most days on my way to campus, running errands or returning home, walking, on bike or in the tram, morning or night, I am harassed. It usually takes the form of a horrible kissing sound, comments about my appearance – or a combination of the two. For instance, on the tram last Wednesday a man sat in front of me and turned around to stare at me and mumble inaudibly the entire ride. Or on my way home from school on Friday, a man made the horrible kissing noise as I passed him on my bicycle.

I notice that when I walk alone I am usually on edge, uncomfortable, especially when I pass groups of men hanging around the street. While I have not been physically hurt, I feel threatened.  These men have no particular interest in me; rather they are using me, as they use other women they do not know, to feel big, strong, and powerful. They make themselves feel big by trying to make us feel small. Often there is an added layer of intimidation as there are usually several men standing together.

Why is this such a problem in Brussels? Well, first, this is not just a Brussels problem. But Brussels does have a very big unemployment problem: the average rate of unemployment in Brussels is over 20%, while in some migrant neighbourhoods it lays between 25 and 40% and nearly 50% among youth (See the table below). This means that there is a large number of poor, unemployed, frustrated men who spend most of their days loitering in small groups in the public realm. This leads to a feeling of insecurity, especially for me and other young women who share that public space.

Unemployment statistics for Brussels, 2009

Neighbourhood Unemployment rate (%) Youth (18-24) unemployment rate (%)
ANNEESSENS

35.22

49.55

CUREGHEM BARA

34.73

46.79

PORTE DE HAL

31.37

45.29

GARE DE SCHAERBEEK

26.91

42.33

Brussels Capital Region average

22.05

38.43

Source: Monitoring des quartiers, l‘Institut Bruxellois de Statistique et d’Analyse (IBSA)

What can be done about this? Well, some have already taken to raising awareness about the problem, namely a young filmmaker who made this documentary exposing the harassment she endures on the streets of Brussels. When it happens to me, I am usually divided between three reactions: anger, fear or ignore.  I usually feel the first two inside and opt for the third, to prevent any escalation of the situation. Further, I sometimes think that it is best to give them no attention for their leers or remarks. However, this is not going to solve the problem.

I once tried another approach. One Sunday as I stood locking my bicycle to a pole near the South Station, two men standing on the corner of the street began to talk to me, asking me how I was, where I was going. Sometimes in these situations I wish it were possible to be friendly and give a polite answer, but a friendly answer is often interpreted as an opening for further conversation and harassment. So I have a tendency to be short or defensive in my responses, or to simply ignore. As usual, I started by ignoring them. Adamant for a response, as if I owed him as much, one man switched to English, thinking perhaps I did not understand him the first time. Exasperated, I blurted out “I understood you the first time, but I do not have to respond”. Silence. It seemed to work. Often though, we are afraid to respond in such a way, lest the situation escalate.

That scenario made me realize one of the issues at hand, and something that these men fail to realize: I do not have to respond. As a person, walking in the public realm, I do not owe anyone a response. There is a prevailing sense that the women these men harass owe them an answer, a look, a smile even. In this sense, they are using us to get a reaction.

The damage done by this kind of behaviour is significant. The victims feel threatened and uncomfortable, sometimes even embarrassed and ashamed, while the man continues about his day with little second thought – for he will likely harass ten more women before the day is over.

So, again, what to do? One of the most important things, I believe, is that those witnessing this harassment say something, call the men out on it. It would be much more powerful if these acts were not silently accepted by onlookers, but rather deemed unacceptable forms of violence. However, not once has anyone said something to a man harassing me in Brussels. Another solution, and not at all simple: deal with the problem of unemployment among these young people. Perhaps another one for the shorter term: we can make the public realm safer for women, with better lighting for instance and less “blind” building façades so there are more “eyes on the street”.

This topic, the treatment of women on the streets of Brussels, has become a common theme of discussion in my circle of friends. Most of the women have experienced some form of harassment. This has left us feeling uneasy. Sexual harassment is a violent act that diminishes its victims, making them feel unsafe, uncomfortable and defensive. While it is not physical violence, it is violence all the same and makes our lives here in Brussels less safe and less good.

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3 thoughts on “Being a woman in Brussels

  1. it could be annoying yes…but it happens everywhere, employed or unemployed, migrant or not, Brussels or wherever!!! I have experienced intimidation and verbal; even worse: non-verbal harrasment coming from completely employed successfull rich looking poeple behaving disrespectfully, being drunk after their long probably frustrating work day on the terrace of a fancy bar…so this article is way out of being objective, your own experience supported by these statistics can be misleading!

    • it is true that us, women are not always comfortable or feel at ease in public places, always having to Watch out for everything, from our dress to our attitude and in very subtle way, for little gestrures are often interpreted by many men as an inviting signals while we try just to be ourselves. This takes away an important part of our freedom of moving around the city and many times it even gets discouraging for going out…but we have to stay aware of the fact that it is not only poor, enemployed and bored young poeple in the streets who are responsible of this.
      It is the mentality that needs to change…think of the work place, for example, and even in more ‘democratic’ spaces, how women are constantly harrassed while it is presented to them as the opposite and which remains covered to keep us from refusing this treatment: compliments to keep you docile, excessive work presented as encouragement and a sign of trust, the short time of speech given during public discussions and denial of the sense of your participation in very respectfull rethorical ways …and especially by ignoring the physical needs for rest, and all indirect elaborate ways to keep us away from revolting, living in the fear of becoming poor, and enemployed…for a poor unemployed women are even more subject to harrasment and finding themselves in degrading situations where accepting harrasment becomes their only way of surviving! So harrasment is a big issue, thank for pointing that out! And let’s hope to be always conscious to teach men how to treat us with what is the least that we deserve. We are not asking for tolerance but for us to be celebrated in the public space, in the Streets, at work and at home. Thank you Devon for creating this occasion to talk about this! Hope other women have expériences to share too!

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