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I always considered myself a confident, strong woman who could stand up for herself very well in all circumstances. I read a lot about gender studies at university and proudly call myself a feminist (I don’t see why this word is often meant as a derogatory term these days). I am very open-minded and interested in other people and other cultures. I love to ‘open up’ to the world and have an eye for all the beauty you see on the streets and enjoy those spontaneous sparks of friendliness you often receive from people you don’t know.
… until I started working in Brussels two years ago. My daily commute to work included a ride by public transport from the Brussels South/Midi train station to the outskirts of Molenbeek and back. To cross this distance I had two options: a 30 minute bus ride through Kuregem and Anderlecht or the subway until Weststation followed by a bus in Molenbeek.
As the 30 minute bus enlarged my daily commute to work to 4 hours (I didn’t want to live in Brussels) and was often crowded with smelly homeless people or screaming kids, I opted for the slightly faster subway and bus. The bad connection between the two often meant waiting a long time for the bus to come, which made me a very visible prey for male harrasment.
I cannot count all the times that I was stared, whistled or shouted at, felt uncomfortable and even unsafe. I’d like to go into detail about some of those incidents.
As every day, I was waiting for the bus to come, which didn’t show up. A man asked me if I’d seen it pass and friendly I sad no. He started a conversation which at first seemed okay but became more and more intrusive. He asked me where I was going and where I had to get off the bus, where I was working and (always works as a red alarm) if I wanted to go for a drink. I tried to avoid the questions I didn’t want to answer and answered the last one with ‘Thank you, but I don’t have the time, I have to go to work’. Upon which he replied ‘Oh, but then I’ll wait for you after work.’ And then he took the same bus, got out at the same stop and saw me entering the building where I work. Luckily, when I returned home that evening, he wasn’t there, but I promised myself not to take the same road again.
I started taking the long bus and avoided the subway station, although this often made me be late for work, which caused me a lot of trouble. One day, I was in a hurry and decided to take the subway again. As I wanted to exit the station, a group of young guys was hanging around at the lower side of the escalator. As I walked in between them to the escalator, they surrounded me and said in a threatening voice: ‘You know it’s not a good idea to walk alone here as a girl’ followed by some other stuff in French that I didn’t understand. I stared straight ahead and walked up as firm as I could. They didn’t follow me or catch me, but they would have easily could if they wanted to. I was in shock the whole morning.
I know I look good and I love dressing up extravagantly, but the longer I worked in Brussels the more I started to dress like a grey mouse. I banned all colour and nice dresses and even in summer covered my arms, neck and most part of my legs. But even wearing a long winter coat completely buttoned up to my chin resulted in whistles on the street.
I started to hate going through the same hellish distance every day. I postponed going to work, arrived even later, got bad evaluations (and little understanding) and eventually quit my job.
Recently I heard about the documentary ‘Femme de la rue’ by Sofie Peeters and the Hollaback movement. It’s truely a relief to know that I’m not alone, that I’m not a woosy (of course not! :) ) and that women don’t put up with this behaviour anymore and are taking action.
Because there IS a problem. And I know leaving Brussels (although a huge relief) is not the solution. In other cities in Belgium, I’ve been called ‘whore’ and ‘I’ll rape you in your ass’ as well. Luckily, no real harm has ever been done to me, but I don’t want to wait until I’m truely a ‘victim’. Time to reclaim the streets and hold back! :)
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