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  • Maria Burbach

“Nice Legs Baby, What Time Do They Open?” – Greetings From One of Europe’s Safest Cities

Content warning: mentions of sexual harassment, sexual intimidation, and use of misogynist and objectifying language (in catcalls)

Until about two months ago, I was living in Berlin – the first city that I have lived in in which I didn’t feel comfortable running after the sun had set. When I moved back to Amsterdam at the beginning of February, I was excited that the time of the day wouldn’t dictate my schedule anymore: I generally feel so safe here that I don't even mind running along the Amstel river after dark. But no matter how safe I personally feel to wander the streets of Amsterdam on my own, I have come to notice that most of my female friends do not. Although that didn’t come as a surprise to me, I started wondering why: According to statistics, Amsterdam is one of the safest cities in the world and ranks as the second safest city in Europe – the 2017 Safe Cities Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit even names Amsterdam as the second safest city globally in terms of personal security. But whose personal security are we talking about?

Tools like the Safe City Index rarely – if ever – take more intangible concepts like perceived safety in a city into account. They do incorporate women’s security in some way: “Gender safety” is described by more quantifiable factors like the number of rape cases and the number of female homicide victims. While these cases, of course, play a decisive role in how safe women are in a city, they fail to acknowledge how safe women feel.

When I approached my friends to hear more about their perspectives and experiences, one told me that she is always a bit afraid of being kicked off her bike when she cycles alone at night – because if that ever happened, she would have no chance of defending herself. “Normally, I feel pretty safe on my bike”, she said. “But ever since people told me to be careful about this when I first moved to Amsterdam, I have become apprehensive of cycling along the Amstel river at night.” If Amsterdam is such a safe city, why do my girl friends then not want to cycle home alone in the dark after going out? Why do I feel the need to share my live location with my friends when I’m going on a date with someone I met on an app? Why would most of my female peers never even think about going on a run after dark? One friend explained to me that she never puts her headphones in when she takes public transport at night: “I prefer not to wear them so I notice in case someone approaches me from behind.” Another told me a story of one of our mutual classmates being chased on her bike when she cycled home alone one night.

If you grew up as a woman or as a person who is perceived as one, you are probably familiar with many of the situations I described above. And I’m assuming that, sadly, none of this is surprising or newsworthy to you. I realized just how much I have come to accept certain behaviors in my daily life when a close friend of mine pointed out that street harassment was the biggest factor that made her feel uneasy when being out on her own: “I hate leaving the house alone because you get catcalled no matter where you go, no matter the time of the day.” Already telling in itself, I hadn’t even thought about catcalling until I talked to her. When I drafted my first version of this article, street harassment, or straatintimidatie in Dutch, seemed like such a normal part of my life that I hadn’t even factored it in when I was thinking about safety in Amsterdam.

To get a better idea of how ordinary catcalling is even in one of Europe’s ‘safest’ cities, I talked to Ambrien Moeniralam, founder of the Instagram account @catcallsofams (Catcalls of Amsterdam). The page calls attention to the extent of objectifying, demeaning, and sexual comments mostly girls and women receive on a daily basis and aims to create a space where people who have experienced street harassment feel safe and heard.

“Nice legs, you want to show me the rest?” – “I will r*pe you and make you work for it later.”

Almost 200 pictures of comments like these can be found on the Catcalls of Amsterdam Instagram account. Followers can send in their experiences of harassment with the corresponding location which Ambrien and her team of volunteers then convert into colorful chalk quotes on the streets of Amsterdam. “We use chalk because people usually link it to children and expect happy and colorful scribbles when they see our work,” Ambrien explains. “What we actually want is for those bystanders to feel a little bit like the person who got catcalled. And we see that it works: We use beautiful colors and beautiful handwriting so you can see on people’s faces that they are actually quite shocked when they read the quotes.”

While most submissions are from women or members of the LGBTQ+ community between the ages of 16 and 25, Ambrien and her team have even received messages from girls as young as 12 years old and from women in their fifties who share traumatic events that happened decades ago. The impressions Ambrien gets from running her page are supported by a study recently published by the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS): In 2021, two in three women between the ages of 12 to 25 had been subject to street harassment in the past year. These numbers include more ‘harmless’ things like being catcalled and being whistled at, as well extremely threatening situations like being followed. Sadly, these results were no surprise to both Ambrien and I. The study was further conducted during lockdown which leads to the percentage probably still underestimating the real extent of street harassment in the Netherlands.

Although I am no exception to the rule and have been catcalled numerous times, my experiences only mirror a certain perspective: I’m a white, cis woman who doesn’t have to deal with additional forms of discrimination like racism and homophobia. Safety becomes an even more contested state for women of color, trans women, queer people, women with a disability, refugees, and women without housing. “I experience sexism, racism, and when I’m with my sister also Islamophobia because she wears a headscarf,” Ambrien continues. “Catcalls usually point to me being ‘exotic’ or refer to me looking like chocolate. I have also been called a k*****, a Dutch slur for people with an Indian background. It’s funny, whenever I get a catcall that doesn’t include a racist reference, I’m actually shocked – in a good and bad way of course.”

To learn more about every individual’s role in stopping street harassment, I contacted Lot Schuringa who works at Fairspace, a Dutch organization which aims to build safe and inclusive spaces in the Netherlands. Lot first got involved with Fairspace a couple of years ago: “I was angry. I had experienced street harassment myself and I wanted to do something productive with that anger”. She now mainly leads workshops about bystander intervention which enable participants to step up and speak out when they observe discrimination. Instead of focusing on perpetrators and victims, Fairspace emphasizes the role of whoever witnesses a situation in which a person is harassed. “Oftentimes, there are people who see when street harassment is happening”, Lot tells me. “If they stood up against it at that moment, they would already make a big difference.” Fairspace has developed a bystander intervention methodology which involves four different tools a person can employ when they witness discrimination: distraction, delegation, direct intervention, and delay. While most people usually associate intervention mainly with the first three approaches, Lot stresses the importance of the last tool: “There are many reasons why you may not be able to stop discrimination from taking place. But afterwards, you can go to the person who was harassed and ask them if they’re okay and offer to walk with them for a while. Just by acknowledging the situation and assuring them that the incident was not their fault, you can already reduce trauma.”

Several recent cases of transphobic hate crimes in Amsterdam have shown that it is now more important than ever for every individual to speak out against street harassment when witnessing it. Despite Amsterdam being branded as the ‘Gay Capital of Europe’, verbal and physical abuse are still the norm for many queer and trans people – significantly reducing both their perceived, as well as their actual level of safety. Often, this sort of harassment is motivated by several different prejudices: The intersection of factors such as homophobia, transphobia, and racism create a very different experience for the person being harassed compared to the type of discrimination I, as a white woman, face. “It is important to create awareness of how the experiences of these women are different,” Lot explains to me. “We have a lot to learn from that.” She’s right: It is important to recognize our own responsibility in standing up for the people who have to endure harassment – especially if we are in a more privileged position to do so.

I asked both Ambrien and Lot if their personal perspective on safety has changed ever since they started becoming active. “I feel like I have developed this kind of sixth sense when I go out, I can just tell when one of my friends or me are going to be catcalled,” Ambrien replies. “I’m very much aware of my surroundings which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But I do feel very empowered when I go chalking – I know I’m doing it for a good cause and I’ve had many positive conversations with people in the streets. So it has also changed my perception of safety for the better.” Lot’s feeling of safety mainly revolves around her recognizing the active role she plays in the security of others: “I don’t walk around in public wearing headphones as much anymore and whenever I feel like something is going to happen or something just doesn’t feel right, I stick around to observe if an intervention is needed.”

How we measure a city’s level of security is important for women to assess where to run, date, go, live. Our understanding of safety should be broadened to include a more subjective view – the perceived level of safety should match the quantifiable level of safety: If cities are declared safe on paper, why would anyone feel the urge to push for policy initiatives? Fortunately, Dutch lawmakers have recognized the need for new legislation: The municipality of Rotterdam and the municipality of Amsterdam took a first step towards making security more inclusive when they introduced a ban on street harassment in 2018. Breaking this law can be punished with a fine of up to 4100 Euros or even three months in prison – the city of Amsterdam, however, has decided not to enforce this ban because the prosecution of catcallers remains difficult and costly. Instead, it has employed a more educative and preventive approach with a focus on raising awareness about the issue. While this is a step in the right direction, Amsterdam still has to prove that it actually takes women’s fears seriously – in the meantime, it’s up to all of us and people like Ambrien and Lot to give women a space to share their experiences and, bit by bit, make Amsterdam a safer city for everyone.

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