I recently embarked on a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, helping with the organization of the Nomads Gathering, an event that takes place this weekend in Amsterdam, where I'll be talking and premiering the preview of a documentary I'm currently giving life to.
All good, right? Well, not quite. It turns out that on my first morning in Brussels I was harassed three different times by three different men, all of them with diverse nationalities and physical appearances. The first one started following me for a while after I asked him about a street, wanting to know if I had - or needed - a boyfriend. The second one blocked my path saying gross things as I was walking down a street examining my map. The third one came to me while I was taking a picture, started making uncomfortable questions, and got to the point of grabbing my wrist, forcing me to release myself violently.
In all of the three cases, the neighbourhood I was in wasn't dangerous, so this kind of assault took me completely by surprise, unaware of any kind of danger around me.
The next morning I was supposed to travel to Amsterdam and I wanted to do it in a challenging way. So I stood there, quite nervous, on the side of a road in the Belgian region of Ambers, with a piece of cardboard in my hand that had the word AMSTERDAM written in it, and started to hitchhike alone for the first time in my life. Ten seconds later (literally) a car showed up, and the driver started waving and smiling at me. I was planning on writing his license plate down, chatting with him before getting in the car, and basically applying every single security measure that I had been learning by heart, but the moment I talked to him I knew instinctively that he wasn't any danger and just jumped in. In this case, the fear/reality unbalance was the other way around - while walking down the street harassment took my by surprise because I wasn't expecting any danger, on the road I was ready to jump at the slightest threat and in the end nothing happened.
So, if assault is completely random and depending on luck, what does it matter if it happens in a location or another? What's the difference? Shouldn't we always be cautious no matter what?
Ok, so - regardless if you're female or male, imagine you're travelling, you phone your parents and you tell them one of these things:
-Hey, I'm gonna walk around Brussels for a while.
-Hey, I'm gonna get in a stranger's car to travel from Belgium to the Netherlands.
Which one would they be concerned about? Exactly.
Because, while the second option implies logical and self-evident risks, the first one shouldn't pose any kind of threat.
A car is a private space. When entering a private space, you're accepting some risks that you know that might exist, being it an environment that is not controlled by you, but by someone else. Everyone knows that hitchhiking might be dangerous for both women and men (though of course, more for us women) and, because of that, it's understandable to be wary of any red flag, and be prepared to act if something happens. And, by all means, I'm not saying that if an aggression takes place, it would be the hitchhiker's fault for “getting herself into a dangerous position” (we already have enough victim-blaming in cases of sexist violence, thank you very much) – I'm just pointing out that this is a situation that, although rare, could be expected. To sum up: there's a risk, hence the presence of caution and fear.
On the other hand, streets are a public space. Payed, taken care of, and surveilled by everybody's taxes. They are areas of constant transit, especially when located in such a place as the centre of a city like Brussels. Walking on it, especially at plain day light, shouldn't pose any threat whatsoever. So then, why does it? It seems like, in this case, the balance between the risk that a situation should imply and the risk that it actually has is way off.
This is not about street harassment being worse than harassment on the road. No, harassment is harassment, no matter where it takes place, and its presence is intolerable under any circumstances. But the fact that there is a risk of harassment in a public space legitimates and normalizes the fear women have in it. It is only logical to be afraid when hitchhiking, it responds to our survival instinct - but this fear should be completely out of place in the streets. Because it so happens that, when harassment happens in a public space and it is also partially tolerated by society ("you're exaggerating", "that's not harassment", etc.) it becomes a collective problem and affects us all.
The question of how to change this varies depending on our situation. In the case of women, as I already explained in an interview for the platform Stop Street Harassment, one possible option is not letting fear stop us in public spaces and analyzing its roots in all the others. This is also the reason why we should maybe re-open the questions about the point when a woman's fear is fair or justified in a particular situation and especially keep fighting against the recurrent response "if it scares you, don't do it".