August 22, 2012
Street Harassment: the taboo is finally breaking
The neglected phenomenon of street harassment suffered by a majority of women in Brussels as well as in other European cities is the subject of the documentary ‘Femme de la rue’ (‘Woman of the Street’) by student filmmaker Sofie Peteers. Released in Belgium at the end of July 2012, this simple university work created an incredible snowball effect. The topic has been picking up in the francophone medias to such extent that Belgium is now examining the possibility of creating a law to penalize street harassment.
What is street harassment?
It is hard to believe from a British perspective and especially for those living in London, that it may be part of the daily routine of women in cities like Paris or Brussels to be approached, insulted or sexually harassed by men with explicit words. In Paris, it has now reached a point that a young woman in a skirt can hardly walk for ten minutes in certain areas without getting a comment or two. The simple fact of wearing a skirt is seen as an invitation by many men, making this piece of clothe the new symbol of female emancipation. Women are back there in certain western countries, and the issue became so problematic that the French feminist group ‘Ni Putes Ni Soumises’ (‘Neither Whores Nor Submissive’) even launched a few years ago the initiative of the ‘National Skirt Day’ (‘Journée de la Jupe’) every November 25th.
Sofie Peteers’s documentary was shot with a hidden camera as she was walking the street of Anneessens neighborhood in Brussels, wearing a summer dress under the knee and boots. All the remarks and insults shown in the movie were recorded in one single afternoon. They go from the classic ‘You are charming, mademoiselle’ to ‘Pretty little ass’, ‘Bitch’ and even at worst ‘If I could, I would stick it into your ass’ as testified by an interviewee in the documentary. Sofie Peeters gathered testimonials of many Brussels women who confirm that they get accosted by men on average 10 to 20 times a day, don’t go to certain areas and avoid eye contact when walking certain streets. We see the filmmaker asking a group of older men: ‘What does it take for you to leave me alone?’ The answer is eloquent: either to walk with a man or to wear a wedding ring.
The interview of an ‘harasser’ states that guys adopting such behavior are generally aware of its rudeness and its unlikelihood to seduce women, but he justifies himself saying that in a society which constantly exploits the female body for advertisement purposes, it is hard to consider women as non-sexual objects.
An unbelievable echo
Shortly after the release of ‘Femme de la rue’ in Belgium in cinema and on TV, all the francophone medias relayed the information, from the smallest blog to the main national newspaper like Elle, L’Express, Le Monde or Libération, bringing this ongoing issue under a different light. The response on Twitter (with hashtag #harcelementderue) was overwhelming and a large majority of French and Belgian women finally dared to say, with a mix of relief and shyness, that they were suffering street harassment occasionally or on a daily basis.
The impact of this student work shows how deep and unresolved the problem is, and how the power of speech needs to be liberated. The phenomenon of street harassment has just started being debated in the medias because no one would take it seriously and admit that some women are in a deep distress because of it. It is still regarded at best as something harmless and insignificant, even sometimes as a flattering practice which women should feel grateful for, unless they are Victorian or enraged feminists. The testimonials in ‘Femme de la rue’ state that all women question their behavior and outfits and feel responsible for ‘doing something wrong’ or being too feminine.
The phenomenon is obviously not only European, and women from countries like Egypt and Lebanon, where this practice is a total commonplace – 83% of Egyptian women are exposed to street harassment – also start reacting and speaking up, like for instance with the 2010 Egyptian movie ‘Femmes du bus 678′ (‘Women on the bus 678′) by Mohamed Diab.
How to legislate on such an issue?
In Belgium, the release of ‘Femme de la rue’ was followed by the announcement of a law to come into force in September 2012. The street harassers will get fined. Obviously, this law is already debated on two aspects: this law can only be symbolic as it will be almost impossible to provide evidence of verbal harassment unless the harassers are being caught in the act. Finally, how to draw the line between harassment and seduction? Will it be forbidden to talk to women on the street? Will this initiative tense the relationships between men and women in the public space?
See the trailer of ‘Femme de la Rue’ with Flamish and English subtitles :
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