Catcalls of Maastricht
LONGREAD. Sexual harassment and violence against women: since the murder of the British Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped and later found dead in London on 3 March, large-scale protests have been taking place. Eyes undressing you, psssstt sounds, shouting and abuse like “nice pussy!” to “slut”. Students from Maastricht University know a thing or two about this and are taking action in a number of ways. The Diversity Office is also working on a plan of action.
There is a gas leak in her student house, so Eva de Vries, student at Maastricht University, is temporarily staying with friends. It is a Sunday evening in November, around eight o’clock, when she decides to go for a short walk in the centre of Maastricht. Alone. She is addressed by an English-speaking young man on the Market square. “He said that he was 21 and studying here for a semester.” Rather quickly his behaviour turned “aggressive, intimidating. At first it was just verbal; he tried to convince me to go with him.” Then the guy grabs her arm and kisses her on the mouth. “I took a step back and shouted: ‘Go away, I feel extremely uncomfortable. I will call the police if you follow me.’”
Fearful, but also seething with anger, De Vries walks to her temporary home. She is in two minds about calling the police, after all, what can they do for her? Still, two days later she decides to contact them. That same week, she visits the police station on the Prins Bisschopsingel. “The policewoman was very understanding. I didn’t expect that to be the case. I spent two whole hours there.” The fact that she could tell her story, did her the world of good, she says. They didn’t set up a case, “understandable. There were no witnesses, I didn’t have a name, no photograph.
“I try to talk to as many people as possible about it. It is ridiculous that, as a woman, I can’t leave my home because of these types of perpetrators. I have lost my sense of security.”
De Vries decides to share her story on the Facebook page Sharing is Caring Maastricht, just like other young women with similar experiences. “There is definitely a trend of pointless violence, harassment and hate towards women going on, that is traumatizing women and creating a toxic environment,” another Maastricht student wrote. She told of a friend who was cycling along the Brusselsestraat just after midnight last autumn. Men in a blue Volkswagen Polo called her a whore; they threw eggs at her coat and backpack. The student ends her message with the appeal to file a report with the police: "Only if these sick acts are reported, can something be done about them, whether it be in terms of justice or prevention." By the way, these incidences that people are posting on Sharing is Caring don’t all take place at night-time or at dusk.
But is it a trend, as is suggested on Facebook? Has the number of incidences of sexual harassment on the streets risen in the past months in Maastricht? The Limburg police cannot share any figures. Reports are not “filed away” under a single category, such as street intimidation, a spokesperson explains. One victim refers to it as an ‘insult’. Another says that they feel uncomfortable with the catcalling (whistling, calling out, hissing), then another says they have been assaulted.
Lieke Lorea Gaminde, chairperson of the national foundation Stop Street Intimidation, recently reacted in the daily newspaper Trouw after the death of Sarah Everard. “This is the underlying fear that women feel every day,” she said in the paper. “And after a violent incident like this, the discussion about street intimidation flares up again. But the only thing that changes is that women adapt their behaviour.” You start to walk like a man, you take a different route, agree to phone when you are safely home, or decide to only be outside in the evening or night-time when you are in the company of male friends.
For Feline [she doesn’t want her last name to be mentioned, ed.], third-year bachelor’s student of European Studies, and Julianna Bakker, student of Biomedical Sciences, the limit has been reached. They resurrected the Instagram account Catcalls of Maastricht in September last year. So far, it has 1,100 followers. “This is a safe environment to openly talk to and support each other,” it states at the bottom of the page. When they receive messages (via Direct Messages) of insults, shouts of abuse and other intimidating behaviour, they go to the place concerned and write it on the pavement with chalk. Then they take a photograph of it and share it on social media.
“It makes me extremely angry when someone calls after me or insults me,” says Feline. A year-and-a-half ago, I was cycling home with a friend near Emmaplein at three o’clock in the morning. “A car driver drove alongside us and offered 100 euro for sex. I would have loved to have kicked a dent his car! I started to speak to friends about it and I found Catcalls on Instagram, an initiative that that has been copied in a lot of different cities around the world, and I wanted to do the same in Maastricht.” The majority of those who sign up are women, the two of them say, “but we are open to everyone”.
What frustrates Bakker, is that women blame themselves after such an incident. Walking along the Meerssenerweg in the middle of the night, she became the victim of two men who “came from nowhere” and started shouting in her face. “Then they laughed really loudly. I was perplexed. Later on, I thought: ‘Should I have done something?’ But, well what? Shout ‘fuck you’? Then they might have done more to me. It makes you feel weak, ashamed, while it was the men who were in the wrong.”
She has also noticed that women try to make it smaller than it actually is. “We sometimes get messages for Cat Calls of Maastricht that say: ‘This and this happened to me, but it is probably not catcalling’. They play down the incident, even though it has left them with a nasty feeling.” As far as the two are concerned, sexual harassment on the streets should be made a legal offence; they support the petition of the same name and hope that the penal code will be amended.
Meanwhile, Catcalls of Maastricht has sought collaboration with We Care, a student organisation at the UM that helps victims of sexual assaults. Pia Breuer, second-year student of psychology and Duygu Dursun, master’s student of International Business, have both been involved in We Care since the summer of 2020. Their motives? Offering support and “re-educating” society, says Breuer. “Sexual harassment, whether it is verbal or physical, appears to be normal these days. Even at secondary school, boys touched girls uninvitedly. It was a regular thing. Nobody said anything about it except me. Teachers paid no attention to it in class.”
Dursun, 29 years old, already has a career as a lawyer (financial law) in her home country Turkey. “I was a legal aid volunteer for victims of domestic violence. That bond, the fact that I could mean something to these people, yes, that felt really good.”
Dursun knows from personal experience what sexual harassment does to you. “I was thirteen or fourteen and was sitting on a bus in Ankara. A man came and sat beside me, he moved himself closer and closer to me, touched my body and my breasts. I panicked, but did nothing. For a long time, I thought: ‘Ah, get over yourself, you have made it out to be worse than it was.’ It was only years later that I concluded: it was terrible. For a long time, I didn’t dare speak about it, but now I feel that it is a message that should be heard.”
Catcalls of Maastricht and We Care, together have published a map with locations where women have been intimidated lately. The Brusselsestraat is a hotspot. Collecting data, among others about unsafe streets, bridges and squares, is also part of a chatbot project [an automated discussion partner, ed.] by the Department of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering. “We want the chatbot to be as simple and accessible as possible,” project leader and assistant professor Jerry Spanakis explains. “You don’t need to download an app or make an appointment. No, you can tell the story about what happened to you online, simply and anonymously. We ask for a short description, location, date and time, the type of intimidation – was it verbal or physical, were you followed, et cetera.”
With the help of technology, all the experiences will be collected in a kind of database. In this way, we can detect frequently-mentioned streets; the city authority could then decide to install more cameras or street lanterns. The chatbot will also provide an overview of authorities that victims can turn to for help.
As far as the latter is concerned, there is a problem, says Constance Sommerey, diversity officer at the UM who is dotting the last i’s in a policy piece on sexual harassment. From a survey among 2,700 students, carried out by a group of researchers from University College Maastricht, the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, it appeared that the majority of victims didn’t know where to turn and if they did know, they didn’t have enough faith in the authority or person.
“That was sufficient reason for us to do something about the supply of information,” says Sommerey. “What can they expect if they turn to a psychologist or the police?” She ascertained that it is especially the non-Dutch students who carry things around for too long. “The threshold is high, I get that, and not just because of the language barrier. You wonder why the police would believe you, you think it is your own fault, or you just don’t like having to defend yourself.” Sommerey reckons that it is important that people contact a confidential advisor or the police, otherwise the UM – if something happens between students themselves or between a student and an employee – has nothing to go on.
Rector Rianne Letschert joined in the Dutch television programme M for a discussion on intimidation and safety at universities a while ago. Letschert stressed in the broadcast that reporting unacceptable behaviour was of the greatest importance. But even more important than that, she later said when asked by Observant, is lodging a formal complaint, “so that actual steps can be taken more quickly”. Also, in serious cases such as sexual violence, you must report it to the police, was her advice. “We as a board cannot take the place of the criminal judge.”
There is an important role in the policy plan for the confidential advisor for students, for student psychologists, but also peers who have been through the same experience, says Sommerey, “peer support”. She has also set her sights on the knowledge engineers’ chatbot. When it can go live, is the question. “It is work in progress,” Jerry Spanakis explains. In 2019, five students started it. “We are now looking at how we can use it in practice, it is likely that we will first work with a focus group.”
Lastly, Sommerey is impressed by the EAAA, an evidence-based sexual assault prevention programme (Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act), “of which the UM is the only university in the European Union to have a licence. In addition to physical defence, attention is also paid to safeguarding limits, how much do you respect your own and those of others, how can you recognise unpleasant situations and how should you act in that case.” There was a pilot at UCM. “There are talks with UM Sports to expand the training.”
Sexual Harassment Maastricht project
The city of Maastricht is not doing nothing, since Consent Matters (an initiative by students from University College Maastricht) sent a letter to the mayor and aldermen in 2017 with the request to amend the local bye-laws. They want sexual harassment to become a legal offence. This was sufficient reason for the city council to carry out an investigation: does sexual harassment occur in Maastricht and if so, what can we do about it?
The investigation was carried out by Pauline Heuperman, prevention officer at Mondriaan, a mental health care institution. She became involved because of the link with alcohol abuse, which is a major predictor for unacceptable behaviour. Just like group pressure. Heuperman found that there was no lack of institutions in Maastricht, “but there is a hurdle that youths have to take. It is about trust; do you have a good feeling about the person you are sharing your story with? The GGD’s Centre for Sexual Violence (Centrum Seksueel Geweld), for example, has a name that frightens some people away.” Help needs to be more accessible, was her conclusion, “and specific attention needs to be paid to the international community that does not always speak Dutch.
Moreover, professionals will have to focus more on their approach of people, be aware of victim blaming.” In addition to education – “empowerment of target groups” – she is hoping that the safety within student organisations and sports clubs will become a subject of discussion.
Heuperman sees enforcement as a final step. “In Rotterdam, there is enforcement because an article has been included in the local bye-laws that states that street intimidation is an offence, although it appears difficult to uphold in front of a judge.”
The Sexual Harassment Maastricht project group, which Heuperman leads, is a collaboration of the area health authority (GGD), city council, Mondriaan, the higher education institutes, Rutgers Stichting, COC, HALT, and the police. They subscribe to the Safe Cities (Veilige Steden) programme by the ministry of Education, Culture and Science. “In the next two years, we will try to get as much done as possible.” We are all eagerly looking forward to the summer, when hopefully much more will be possible and allowed, but at the same time a little worried. “Everyone can enjoy the sidewalk cafes or pubs together. Euphoria is lurking, but perhaps unacceptable behaviour is too.”