Friday, 3 August 2012

Brussels, sexual harrassment, and the 'R' word

The Belgian press has been feverishly analysing the content and wider implications of a video which shows a young woman with a hidden camera walking through the streets of Anneessens, a well known quarter of Brussels. She is filming and recording the number of men who sexually harrass her or who 'offer' to take her to their homes or hotels. It makes for rather depressing watching.

"Bitch", "slag", "nice little ass that", "Wanna have a drink with me? Hotel, bed, you know, let's get straight down to it." She says she has to listen to this kind of thing 5-10 times in an afternoon, which is what she did in the film, called 'Femme de la Rue.'

The young film-maker is Belgian cinema student Sophie Peeters, and she decided to make the film, which is to be screened in Belgian cinemas this evening, after having been disgreeably surprised by the number of times she has been propositioned or insulted in public since moving to Brussels. She also discovered that there are several women's associations in Brussels which are fighting to get the problem recognised by the authorities and dealt with.

But there's a problem, because Anneessens happens to have a dense population of immigrant origin, and this is plain to see when identifying who is harrassing her. So why did she film there? Didn't she know it may lead to a scandal? She answers those questions in an interview in which she says that she filmed there quite simply because that is where she lives, and was conscious of the fact that she had to tread a fine line between documenting facts and implying a racial connotation. Although Peeters readily declares that about 90% of those who harrass her are of foreign origin, she insists that they are just a tiny minority of the immigrant population in Anneessens, but she adds that, "I'd like women to realise if that happens to them, they are not alone. I also want to open this debate up because a lot of people are frightened to talk about it for fear of being labelled as 'racists'."

Support for her film has not been lacking in Belgium, and nor has criticism, and it was only inevitable that the French press would quickly become interested in the story. The first article I read in the French press included the astounding tweet statement by French Media journalist Mathieu Géniole in which he declared that "It must be said concerning the Belgian girl insulted in the street that I have never seen a woman complaining about the same kind of treatment in France."

Needless to say he quite deservedly received hundreds of furious tweets from French women who just couldn't believe their eyes. He wrote an article to try and explain himself, but she shouldn't have bothered because it's a mealy-mouthed effort which, if it proves anything, proves that he seems never to have set foot in a street in France in his life. Or maybe it's because he is blind and he wears an i-Pod permanently. His ingenious spiel is that "I am only just now discovering the existence of this kind of aggression."

I have witnessed hundreds of examples of this kind of behaviour in France over the years and I see more every day if I find myself in some particular parts of town or in large shopping centres, where it is common. Also, the vast majority of French women I have met complain about it more or less, depending on how much time they spend outside or in bars, where single women are often the victims of harrassment to a greater or lesser degree.

And they majoritarily allege that the majority of the harrassers are of foreign origin. A particularly frightening variation involves young men in cars driving around late at night and following women drivers. A friend of mine tells me that the only way she got one car off her tail was by stopping at a police station.

French feminist group Osez le Féminisme unsurprisingly agrees that the phenomenon exists, and that it is widespread in France, although they are more ready to help calm things down than are their Belgian counterparts by correctly pointing out that not all propositions constitute harrassment.

One theme I have often heard from women here is that although harrassment in the street is a majoritarily immigrant 'speciality', it's another story when it comes to the workplace, where many of those in higher positions are of what could be loosely-termed as white French origin. Sexual harrassment in that context is said to be a mainly white French affair, and I have rarely heard of men of immigrant origin harrassing women at work.

Why is that? And why can't these issues be discussed openly? And what exactly could be done about them, if anything? What constitues harrassment and what is 'socially acceptable' behavior when it comes to the age-old art of trying to seduce women? There are so many questions which need to be addressed, but it's as if the majority of French society, from politicians to the police and including many ordinary people, are desperately trying to avoid having to tackle delicate subjects such as this one, whose existence is undeniably real.

This film is more than welcome because it shines a spotlight upon one of France's best-known dirty little secrets, that of the extent of the systematic sexual harrassment of women in public, whoever is responsible for it. Will it lead to change? Should it be treated as a general phenomena or are the characteristics of harrassment in the street and in the workplace different enough to warrant them being studied as phenomena in their own right? But don't hold you're breath whilst waiting for answers, because it isn't going to happen in official French circles and government, where draconian secular principles often exclude dealing with specific phenomena involving specific racial-ethnic-religious groups of the population, particularly if they are of a sensitive nature.

What's that expression about brushes, sweeping and the underneath of carpets?


  1. Thank you for this very interesting and thought provoking post, Fripouille.

    Re your recent comment on my blog, I wld be happy to help re Blogging. Please email me on

    1. Hello Elegance, and I'm glad you liked it. It was quite a difficult piece to write in fact because, like Peeters, I knew I was treading on eggshells and didn't want to come across as doing anything else but relating fact.

      And thank you in return for your kind offer of help, which I gladly accept.