A notification shows a new message at the top of the screen: “Hey whore!” it says. It is another direct message on Instagram with a story of street harassment in Nijmegen…
This is just one example of the many messages we have been receiving since our Instagram account Catcalls of Nimma was founded last year. The idea behind this account is to create a platform where people share their experiences of street harassment. They tell us what has been said and where it has been said. We then go to the place and chalk down a quote from the story. The picture of the chalked quote, together with the rest of the story, is then shared on our account – without mentioning the name of the sender(s).
The purpose of our account is to make visible what is invisible. Verbal instances of street harassment, such as catcalling, are still largely ignored by the wider public. Victim blaming plays an important role, meaning that the focus is on the victim rather than on the perpetrator. When a woman speaks up, people tend to question the decisions she has made. She is likely to get blamed for the kind of clothes she was wearing, for the attitude she adopted or even for walking alone in that particular area. In other words: she probably asked for it, or so they say. Because of the hurdles that women encounter when trying to report sexual harassment and intimidation, women become more hesitant to share their experiences and expose their harassers.
As women, we have first-hand experience with street harassment. It happened to us, as to many other women, numerous times in our lives. For a long time, we have felt as if it was something that “women just have to deal with.” Catcalling, and street harassment in general, has been so normalized that women have started to think that it is a phenomenon they just have to live with and endure. It almost feels as if talking about it will not make a difference. The only solution seems to ignore it and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. However, you can never really ignore it. Even though you might not want to, catcalling does affect you emotionally and even physically. We, as women, do remember the things that have been said to us and the places where those words were said. Sexual harassment and intimidation change the way we feel and behave in the future.
In October 2020, we had the clear feeling that we had reached a breaking point and that it was time for action. We did not want instances of street harassment to be ignored anymore, we wanted them to be noticed and validated. We wanted to say it out loud: street harassment must stop.
Luckily, we noticed that we were not alone in our attempt to tackle this problem. We came across an international movement, called “Chalk Back,” which fights street harassment through public chalk art, digital media, and education. Activists from all over the world can join this initiative by creating an Instagram account called “Catcallsof” followed by the city that the activist is located in.
That is how Catcalls of Nimma was born. By collectively speaking up we want the world to know that street harassment is unacceptable. By sharing all of our stories in a safe environment we can create more awareness of this almost invisible societal problem together. Currently, more than 150 cities in almost 50 different countries have an account like ours. Everyone works independently, which means that you have complete freedom with regard to its set-up and content. You can design your own logo, choose the best format for your posts and decide how active you want to be.
Nevertheless, there is a strong community feeling. All the owners are part of a WhatsApp group, where you can seek advice and support if you face some difficulties managing your account, experience hate comments or if you struggle with the consequences of being an activist. There, you can always find members willing to help you out.
The WhatsApp group is also a way to keep each other updated on what is happening in other parts of the world. Recently, the case of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old woman who was kidnapped and murdered by a policeman in South London while walking home, elicited heavy emotions. CatcallsofLondon, as well as several other accounts, showed support by chalking down: “She was just walking home.”
The case of Sarah Everard (and many others, regrettably) shows that women do not only feel unsafe in the streets but that they are unsafe. Violence against women takes many forms and shapes. According to Bianca Fileborn, author of a resource sheet for the ACSSA (Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault),1 street harassment often manifests itself as verbal comments and requests for sexual interaction (like sexist remarks or catcalling), non-verbal actions (such as hand or facial gestures) and physical harassment (such as touching, groping or rubbing). The boundaries between the different types are blurry, and they often overlap with other forms of sexual violence. We receive DMs with experiences of verbal street harassment but also of sexual violence that has occurred in public places in Nijmegen.
An important aspect of (street) harassment is that it depends on how the experience is perceived by the victim. This makes the context an important indicator of harassment. Sometimes people comment on our posts that the catcalls that we chalked down are compliments. Even though only the victims can determine whether (and to what extent) they felt uncomfortable or harassed, it is safe to say that catcalls are never compliments.
Even though perpetrators are not able to see the full extent of their allegedly “small comments,” the effects of catcalling can be substantial. Not only the act itself, but even the fear of street harassment makes many women adjust their behaviour in public spaces in order to avoid getting into dangerous situations. These “adjusted behaviours” vary from not making eye contact with men to avoiding certain public places during the day and especially at night.2 In order to make the effects of catcalling more concrete, every Instagram post has a textbox with the complete experience of the victim. This textbox explains the situation and stresses the feelings of the victims. In this way, we want to tackle the grey area between compliments and street harassment and make people more aware of the effects that street harassment can have.
Our main goal is to make street harassment known and recognized and to enact social change. We believe that in order to accomplish this, it is important that we reach as many people in our society as possible. Therefore, we regularly team up with different initiatives. Recently, we worked together with the Anti-Racism Awareness collective of the Radboud to address sexism and racism, and their intersection(s).
Some people say that we are an account for women (who are often catcalled) and against men (who are often the catcallers). Even though the majority of the catcallers are male, we do not want to create a dichotomy. We are not against men, but we are against the disrespectful behaviours that some men exhibit towards certain groups (women, LGBTQIA+ and many more) on the streets. Everyone, men included, should take a stand. Street harassment must stop, and we believe that the only way to stop it is to work together.
- B.F. Fileborn, “Conceptual understandings and prevalence of sexual harassment and street harassment,” Australian Government (2013). Retrieved from https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2013-07/apo-nid35118.pdf ↵
- T.F. Fischer & N.S. Sprado, Seksuele straatintimidatie in Rotterdam. Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (2017). Retrieved from https://www.rotterdam.nl/wonen-leven/straatintimidatie/Onderzoek-EUR-straatintimidatie.pdf ↵