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  • Nina Reis

Catcalls of Amsterdam, marking sexism on the ground

Published Sat Mar 07 2020

Since I started ‘Cat Calls of Amsterdam’ I developed this sixth sense: every time someone is about to catcall me or my friend, or just a random stranger, a radar goes off in me“ says Ambrien Moenrialam, founder of the Instagram site ‘Cat Calls of Amsterdam’. Together with her team of three, she collects messages people send her of their cat calling experiences. They then visit the place where it happened and chalk the messages on the floor. She hopes her project will increase consciousness about the issue. “I have become more aware, but I also feel empowered, because when I walk through the city it feels like I reclaimed Amsterdam back, not for myself, but for all those who suffer from these micro aggressions. We also want to educate people, those who don’t understand how disturbing cat calling can be and those who do it.”

Ambrien discovered feminism at the age of 14 through her sister and through Instagram: “I don’t know how to describe my feminism, for me it’s just a feeling of solidarity, empowerment, and the need to do justice”. At the age of 15, she stumbled across the Instagram site ‘Cat Calls of New York City’: “I remember seeing this beautiful picture with bright colors on a pavement. And the first thing I thought was actually “oh that’s really cool, it’s street art” but then I read what was written on it; it was about a 12 year old girl, I think it was something like ‘when you’re old enough’, things like that, or something about one of her body parts.“ After a quick research Ambrien discovered that no such initiative existed in Amsterdam, so she took the matter into her own hands.

The first messages Ambrien chalked on the streets of Amsterdam were the cat calling experiences of her family and close friends. After an interview with BBC, her Instagram site became more popular and the followers number skyrocketed. Many of the messages that Ambrien receives talk of being cat called in the city center, Dam Square, Nieuwmarkt, and Centraal Station. In many cases, the perpetrators are actually tourists: “I get pretty upset about that, because you are a guest in this country; so don’t do that.

Since the start of ‘Catcalls of Amsterdam’, similar Instagram accounts have been launched across the Netherlands – in the Hague, Groningen, Rotterdam. “We now have an account in almost every big province or city and I do think that it was partly due to the success of ‘Catcalls of Amsterdam’”. The Dutch government has recently taken bigger steps do address sexual harassment. An example is the recent campaign #you’renotalone. Ambrien says she was a bit disappointed by the campaign, because, she thinks, the blame is always with the victims, the women “I think the focus should rather be on the men. Why don’t we make a #talkwithyourmates campaign instead?”

For Ambrien, the most important step to fight cat calling is sex education in schools, because rape culture and cat calling “aren’t things children get from their home environment. I don’t think parents explicitly tell their children ‘you can’t say this or that to a woman’. In particular, for Ambrien it's important to raise awareness on how harmful and wrong cat calling is. “I want to sit in a room with men who catcall, or who have catcalled, and I want to talk to them, I want to see the way they think; why they do it. I want to know what goes on in their mind; understand it better, to adapt the project in a way that it is effective, that tackles the right people and helps solving the problem.” Ambrien’s message to the Dutch government and Amsterdam’s mayor in the perspective of future awareness campaigns is that “the only way to actually make progress in this field is to include the people who experienced cat calling and abuse, reaching out and talking to them.”

Alongside her team she is currently planning a communal get-together and chalking event at NDSM on April 19th 2020. She is also involved with Amsterdam’s Woman’s March. Every message Ambrien receives stays with her: “I really had to learn not to get mentally and emotionally attached to the messages I receive. Every time I get a message I am still in shock, angry, sad, hurt for that person. Some of those messages I will never forget; for instance a disabled woman contacted us once saying someone told her in Dam Square: ‘if you have that much strength to roll yourself, you can definitely jerk me off really good'”.

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