What I Learned After Being Verbally Assaulted in Brussels

Being a woman, especially one who travels, is rife with contradictions. Travelling as a female can be liberating. But it can also be terrifying at times. There are times when, solely because I’m a female, I get catcalled. Or stared at. Or called out for not smiling. Or for smiling too much. Or dressing too conservatively. Or not dressing conservatively enough. Or being too shy. Or not being shy enough. You get the picture.

As women, we learn to not let this stuff phase us. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. We learn to brush off the derogatory comments and stares like they’re nothing.

But the one thing I can’t stand is when I was verbally assaulted in Brussels by strangers.

My friend and I were walking back to our Airbnb in Brussels, minding our own business. We were wearing jeans, dark colours, and small backpacks. Nothing that shouted ‘tourist’ or ‘American’. Just your average end-of-winter, just-before-spring outfits in Europe.

It started out as a catcall.

Something I’ve learned to just ignore or roll my eyes at. But apparently, our lack of acknowledgment meant that we were obviously interested in the three strange men yelling towards us. Who knew?!

The three men started to follow us,

from a distance at first, asking us how we were, what we were doing and so on (all in French, mind you, so luckily I could understand). When we didn’t respond to this, they started to form a sort-of U around us. We kept walking, this time at a faster pace. They called us stupid and bit**es for not responding. We still didn’t respond. We sped up and kept looking forward.

Luckily these mecs* lost interest in us “stupid” meufs** after awhile because they dispersed.

But only after a mile. Or what felt like a mile to us as we were trying not to get into any more danger than we were already in. We made it back safely to our Airbnb and shook off our experience to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I detailed the experience in my trip journal that night, so I would never forget, but I haven’t referenced that once whilst writing this post. That memory is ingrained in me. After that experience, I wrote down each instance like the one above I experienced on that trip. Sadly, more than one entry graces those pages.

This experience is something that will appear in the back of my mind

as I walk alone down a street populated with lots of men. It is something that will come up whenever I hear someone say that an assault victim was “asking for it.” (Just a hint, no one is ever asking for it). It will rise from the shadows whenever I hear a catcall or hear some guy make rude comments about girls. It is something that will creep up occasionally and make me question myself and wonder what my friend and I did to deserve being treated like stupid objects.

black and white personal image

It will never leave me, but it has made me stronger.

It has made me grateful that something worse didn’t happen and hasn’t happened since. It has made me even more aware of my surroundings than I already was. It has given me respect for those who have gone through similar, but more intense situations. It hasn’t turned me away from travel. It didn’t even stop me from visiting 9 other countries on the rest of my trip. It has made me even more sure that there is still such a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

It left me with a tainted image of Brussels.

I’ve heard so many things about how great Brussels is. I don’t get that same feeling. It’s like how when you get food poisoning from one of your meals and you can’t even think about that dish for what seems like forever without feeling queasy. I would love to go back and give Brussels another try one day. Hopefully, I have the opportunity. But for now, I try to remain at peace with what happened and open-minded about what is to come.

*mec is slang for boy

**meuf is informal slang for girl. It has a slightly misogynistic connotation

This post wasn’t written to get pity or to make my family worried (which it undoubtedly will, #sorrymom). It was written to shed light on just how much there is still to go when it comes to gender equality and share an experience that most females have at least once in their lives.

What I Learned After Being Verbally Assaulted in Brussels

Belgium, Study Abroad, Travel Tips, Travels
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  • Sosha
    22 March 2017 at 19:51

    It is such a scary experience. I traveled to Brussels last year, and I was walking back to my hotel alone when this guy started following. It was broad daylight but it still scared me.


    • almathews
      22 March 2017 at 19:53

      So glad you are okay! My experience was during broad daylight too. Definitely a scary experience.

  • Jaime @angloyankophile
    23 March 2017 at 06:29

    That is so traumatizing, and I’m sorry it happened to you. I travelled to Brussels a couple years ago with my best friend and we didn’t experience that, but we did have some pretty persistent guys at the bar of the hotel we were staying at … do you think this has tainted your view of Brussels i.e. has it put you off visiting again? It’s really hard to shake something like that … I’m not sure I’d want to return to a place where something like that happened to me. Thank you for sharing your story with us, no matter how hard it was to re-live it.

    • almathews
      23 March 2017 at 14:34

      It definitely tainted my experience of Brussels for a long time, especially because it’s hard not to judge an entire city by such an experience. I still don’t have happy thoughts when I think of my trip there but I would like to give it another chance, but I don’t see it as my first choice city in Europe to visit. If I did go back, I would definitely be even more aware of my surroundings and environment than I usually am though. And if I don’t go back, I don’t think I would be too upset.

  • Tanja (the Red phone box travels)
    24 March 2017 at 12:02

    very unpleasant!

  • Kat
    25 March 2017 at 16:54

    Too bad you had to experience that! Something similar happened to me and my friend in Africa once as we were in a bar and forgot about time and it got dark in the mean time. Walking back to our guesthouse was a bit scary as one car was kind of following us and some guys were making comments at the bar before we left. Very uncomfortable feeling, luckily as in your case nothing happened.. I guess things like this can unfortunatelly happen more or less everywhere, so I did not let it shed a bad light to the trip we made (which was awesome and this wa sthe only negative moment)…

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 18:20

      Yeah, unfortunately it seems like this stuff happens everywhere. I’m glad what happened to you was the only negative experience on your trip and that you didn’t let it ruin it!

  • C-Ludik
    25 March 2017 at 17:41

    Thank you for sharing your story, no matter how hard it was to write it. Brussels is a city which is highly segmented on both the social as the cultural level… and unfortunately there are bad people ! I hope you will get a better experience of this city one day :-)

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 18:24

      Aw thank you <3 I studied European politics at university so I definitely had a feeling Brussels would have some tougher parts given its segmentation. I hope to return one day and give Brussels another chance though!

  • Vrithi Pushkar
    25 March 2017 at 17:51

    I am sorry you had such an experience. No matter where you go there are always people like those men. What matters is to try to be safe and ignore them. But don’t let this experience get to you.

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 18:28

      Yeah sadly that’s true!

  • Sara
    25 March 2017 at 18:05

    It is always a scary experience being followed and called at no matter where in the world you are. I’m so glad you are safe :)

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 18:29

      I completely agree! It’s a shame that this happens regularly to women…

  • Lia
    25 March 2017 at 18:20

    I’m so sorry to hear this. I loved Brussels and did not have an experience like this at all. But I have had almost identical experiences just about everywhere … particularly in my home country of the USA, and often when I’m walking home (Which is especially jarring because then you have to pretend you’re going somewhere other than home so they don’t know where you live)! Fuck insecure little men who need to feel the rush of power they get by scaring women, fuck the patriarchy, and fuck that feeling that we get afterwards like maybe we did something wrong (that same feeling that made you feel the need to include what you were wearing, as if if you were wearing something else, this behavior might be understandable or excusable). Fuck everything, man.

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 18:33

      Yeah sadly it happens everywhere. TOO much! I LOVE EVERYTHING about your comment. Fuck the patriarchy and fuck the fact that we as women still experience this stuff regularly and feel like we might somehow be to blame when it in fact NOT AT ALL our fault!

  • Laura
    25 March 2017 at 18:55

    This must have been hard to share but thank you for doing it. It’s so important to stay safe but unfortunately no matter what you do there are some people who think this is acceptable. I’m so glad that it didn’t let it stop you travelling!

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 19:44

      Thank you! It’s definitely unfortunate how men still think they can act that way towards women and think that behaviour is acceptable.

  • Ha @ Expatolife
    25 March 2017 at 19:01

    I totally understand your feeling! As a solo traveler, I got verbally assaulted a lot :( I had some in Belgium as well. One guy just came across me and shout “F*** you, Asian” in Antwerp :( I wanted to cry at that time. Traveling alone as a women means that we need to face those kind of people, but stay strong, girl :)

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 19:46

      Wow, I can’t believe someone actually said that!! That’s horrible, I’m so sorry :( That must’ve really hurt. But, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger (especially stronger than those small people who feel the need to act out against women)

  • Hannah
    25 March 2017 at 19:22

    I hate this. Similar happened to me in Latvia.. I was walking down the street trying to find my hostel and a car of guys trailed me yelling in Latvian. All I could understand was ‘Canada’ because i had a luggage take with a Moose that said Canada. I was so uncomfortable and, as this did for you, it did taint my experience.

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 20:11

      I’m so sorry that happened to you and I’m SO glad you’re ok. It’s definitely understandable that it tainted your experience but I hope it hasn’t turned you off travel. It’s so unfortunate that this kind of stuff still happens :/

  • Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate
    25 March 2017 at 19:26

    I’m so sorry, Alex. I never had a good impression of Brussels and I can’t say this helps that at all. It sucks to be a woman on the road sometimes, doesn’t it? Men never could understand the things we endure =/

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 20:13

      Yeah, it’s definitely not my favorite city :/ If only men knew, maybe they would stop doing these things to us!

  • Bhawna Saini
    25 March 2017 at 19:47

    You are right in saying that no woman ever “asks for it.” I am glad that you continued living your life inspite of this incident. Bravo!

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 20:23

      Thank you! It’s unbelievable how many men I’ve heard make quips about how a girl was asking for it by how she was dressing or acting, which shouldn’t be a factor in assault. Hopefully one day this changes!

  • Claudia
    25 March 2017 at 20:21

    I was actually reading this earlier today as I thought the topic was rather interesting. I have traveled in a few countries and luckily I have never had any issues yet I remember the weird feeling that I got as I was walking the streets of Brussels. I have family living there, yet I don’t particularly enjoy visiting them, purely because I get people staring weirdly at me and things like that. Thanks god that you weren’t harmed 😱

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 20:29

      So glad nothing like this has happened to you, and I hope that it doesn’t in the future! I definitely had that feeling in Brussels as well as when I was visiting Marseille. It definitely affects the enjoyment of a place!

  • Karin
    25 March 2017 at 20:35

    This is so upsetting. I am glad you are okay! I have been harassed a couple of times and you are right, these experiences stay with you but for me, it also teaches me how to react in the future and how to change my own attitude. I feel that when I decided I wasn´t going to be afraid but was going to stand up for myself I encounter a lot less of this treatment. Maybe they feel it from my behavior, or it is just accidental, I have no way of knowing.

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 22:05

      That’s wonderful. Perhaps they sense your confidence, but whatever the reason, it’s great that it’s happened to you less!

  • Kelly
    25 March 2017 at 20:44

    I think the sadest thing about this is how common stuff like this actually is. And that makes me so sad. I was also followed in Paris by two men. I was alone and really scared when it happened. I finally went into a store and lost them but I was also groped in a souveneir shop by a man in Ecuador. It’s so awful and commend your bravery. But the more we talk about it, the more will change. Thanks for sharing. Great read.

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 22:11

      I couldn’t agree more!! I’m so sorry you were followed in Paris. I experienced similar instances when I lived there and was walking home alone at night or exploring different areas throughout the day. They would always point out my blonde hair and catcall me or walk alongside me. I’m glad you were able to lose them in a store. But I’m especially sorry about your experience in Ecuador!! That must be really tough to work through and I hope you’ve gotten a bit of closure from that experience. Fingers crossed that this stuff happens less one day <3

  • Sissi
    25 March 2017 at 21:46

    Good post, agree with many things. I’ve been cycling alone in Latin America for 16 months now and you can only guess, how many catcalls, whistles and shouts a sweaty European woman on a bicycle gets… However, I’ve noticed that the best way (at least in no country I’ve been to, used to live in Mozambique and Zimbabwe) is not to ignore. The way that I find works best is answering politely or as last option by shouting (so that everyone can hear): “You’re harassing me, beat it!”
    I was once harassed physically on a bus in Rome and as I was at the window seat, the guy wouldn’t let me out. I tried to ask him kindly, but no. As soon as I started yelling and telling him to get his hands off me, he quite quickly got out of the bus himself :D
    As for Brussels, it really is a great city :D! Please do go there again and re-program your memories (scientists say we can turn e.g. a date when something bad happened, into a joyful date by creating new, pleasant memories for that day).

    • almathews
      25 March 2017 at 22:15

      Wow, cycling in Latin America, that’s amazing. I’d like to think that if something really bad was happening, like your experience in Rome, that I would have the courage (or anger) to speak up and yell about it! I do hope to return to Brussels one day (and I totally agree with you about the whole re-programing your memories thing. I have anxiety and have had to reprogram some of my memories of places where I’ve had panic attacks, so I know it works!).

  • Alaine
    26 March 2017 at 01:51

    I lived in Brussels for a few months before the attacks and left 5 days before. :-/ Brussels never felt truly safe to me as a woman and I was always on my guard. I lived and worked outside the centre of the city. I was never harassed in my neighborhood or wandering around central Brussels thankfully but there was an uneasy tension that I couldn’t shake past. When I returned a few months later, the weather was much better and I knew how to get around the city without getting bothered so nothing happened. The architecture and some neighbourhoods are really gorgeous though. I’m really sorry that you and your friend were followed. I had a similar experience in Copenhagen. Me and two Swedish girls were heading to another bar with a whole group of people and were followed by a car filled with men! It was really scary. They were shouting and driving up to us. We ran and zigzagged so they couldn’t follow us. It was a scary moment! I still love Copenhagen and think its a beautiful city with nice people. However, I am still scared to go to a bar at night alone because I don’t want another bad situation like that in Copenhagen. It is one of my favorite cities yet having that harrowing experience, it truly has left an impression on my activities in Copenhagen.

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:06

      Wow, you lived there so close to the attacks! I’m sorry you felt uneasy there but at least your return you were more confident and knew where to go. And your experience in Copenhagen–that must’ve been so scary!! I’ve only heard good things about Copenhagen so it’s hard to imagine something like this happening but unfortunately it seems stuff like this happens everywhere to women…I’m glad you made it safely back to where you were going but I definitely understand your fear of going to a bar at night alone too–I would avoid it as well because of that bad experience! But I’m glad you still find reasons to love Copenhagen despite that experience…it will always taint it a little but it’s nice that the good can help to outweigh the bad :)

  • Hannah
    26 March 2017 at 04:03

    It’s so scary when this happens! As much as I love Brussels, this has happened to me on a number of occasions there. It’s so brave of you to share your story and it’s terrifying how commonplace this behavior is.

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 10:46

      So sorry this happened to you in Brussels as well! It’s horrible how often this stuff happens.

  • Elena
    26 March 2017 at 05:21

    I had lots of similar experiences, including one when me and a friend were told by a large group of men that we have no right to be in that neighborhood. They threatened us and they blocked our path so we couldn’t get away. Finally they let us go after about 10 minutes, but I must admit it was a scary experience. Thanks for raising awareness of this social issue!

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 10:48

      Wow, that’s definitely a very scary experience! I’m glad you’re alright. It’s a shame this happens so often and that men find it acceptable.

  • Sonja
    26 March 2017 at 06:28

    I’m so sorry you had that experience! Sometimes we think it’s alright at the time but it’s harder than we think to just forget it and it will come but into our mind at random times. I’m glad it hasn’t stopped you travelling!

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 10:50

      So true! It was hard to register what happened at the time but since then I remember what happened as clear as if it were yesterday. Hopefully situations like this will stop one day.

  • Jollies and Jaunts
    26 March 2017 at 09:28

    How scary! I had nothing but positive experiences in Brussels (visited while there was very high security after the Molenbeek raids following the Paris attacks so it was quite an odd atmosphere at that time) but I did have a negative experience on the train from the airport to Berlin city centre last week and it can colour your view of a place but I tried not to let it – everywhere has a few bad apples intent on spoiling things. I hope one day you can have a more positive experience in Brussels as it is a beautiful city.

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:08

      Oh wow, that must have been a very interesting time to visit, atmosphere-wise. Sorry you had a bad experience so recently! It’s unfortunate there are people everywhere we go that try to taint our experiences. I hope I can one day return to Brussels and have a better experience there!

  • Madi | Restless Worker
    26 March 2017 at 10:11

    I’m glad you made it out okay but that must have been such a terrifying experience. I don’t understand French very well so I can’t even imagine what I would have been thinking. Good for you for staying your course and not responding it could have been much worse. Experiences like this always taint your view of a city no matter how much you loved the city itself what a shame.

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:00

      Thank you! It definitely tainted my view of Brussels and made me more aware of my surroundings everywhere I go, especially at night (even though this happened in broad daylight)

  • Rhiannon
    26 March 2017 at 10:23

    I’m so sorry this happened to you! No one deserves to be treated like that, especially while visiting a country they’ve never been before. It’s upsetting that this experience has left a tainted memory for you, but I hope you get to go back to Brussels one day, and have a much more enjoyable time :) xx

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:09

      Aww thank you! I agree–I don’t understand how men can think this is acceptable behaviour!! Hopefully one day I’ll see Brussels again and have a better experience :)

  • Daniela || Ipanema travels to
    26 March 2017 at 10:52

    It is such a pity that traveling along with the great memories has a less shiny side. I hope articles like yours can raise the awareness about how many women get verbally harassed. And I would say, not only women. Once in Eastern Europe my boyfriend got verbally harassed by some macho types.

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:11

      I’m so sorry your boyfriend got harrassed! You’re right, it’s definitely not only women it happens to. It’s too bad that people think this behaviour is acceptable.

  • Stéphanie LANGLET
    26 March 2017 at 10:56

    I’ll spend a few days in Paris at the end of April. I could buy a very cheap train ticket from the Basque Country to there but I’ve preferred to buy a little bit more expensive air ticket. And why? Just because of this kind of guys you met in Brussels. I met some close to Gare d’Austerlitz a few years ago. I was leaving the subway to go to the night train. Of course, it was on the evening. Two guys came close to me, asking if I wanted them to carry my suitcase. I exactly knew it was not in order to help me. These guys are quite easy to recognise. Their attitude… I refused and walked faster. They did the same, asking me a lot of questions. I told them to leave me alone. As they refused, I started speaking very loudly. I remember a 40 something guy looking at me… just looking at me. He knew what was happening but didn’t care. Luckily, the guys were afraid of my shout and left. I even didn’t validate my reservation and directly run to the train’s staff.
    A few days ago, I was explaining why I will take a flight to my mom and told her how I feel safer at the other side of the World than in Paris by night!

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:15

      Wow, that’s such a scary experience! I can’t believe a guy who knew what was happening just watched it happen; that’s unacceptable! I’m glad you were able to scare them off though and hopefully find help. I felt unsafe in Paris at night a lot. I lived about a 5 minutes walk from the Cour St. Emillion metro and always made sure not to come home too late at night. One night I did (it was Fête de la Musique) and on my walk I heard so many catcalls and someone started to follow me. But luckily I was close to my apartment! I definitely understand why you’d want to take a plane after that experience! Paris at night can be very scary, sadly.

  • Naomi
    26 March 2017 at 11:00

    This is indeed a bad experience which will stay with you forever and will probably colour your image of Brussel for the remainder of your life. But that is ok. You handled it the only way possible and you’ve become stronger. I wish it was all not necessary but for some strange reason, this world is still not able to handle us woman travelling around. I hope you’ll not have to deal with this again on your future travels!

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 11:16

      Thank you for your kind words! I definitely agree–I wish men could let us women travel and act like normal people without harassing us and thinking that it is acceptable behaviour!

  • Sarj | 31andOver
    26 March 2017 at 13:01

    Aww, *hugs* I’m so sorry to hear about this, hun! No one has the right to abuse or terrorize ANYONE in whatever way! It’s quite sad how we just try to live our lives and let them think it’s a behavior that can be tolerated. WTF. I’m just thankful they didn’t try to cause any physical harm against you! Be careful wherever you are, there are idiots everywhere!

    • almathews
      26 March 2017 at 14:13

      Aww thank you, Sarj! I couldn’t agree more! It’s so upsetting that people think this is acceptable behavior.

  • Jacky
    30 March 2017 at 15:59

    So sorry this happened to you! I had a very similar experience when travelling with friends to Rome. Some guys followed us for AGES until we hid in a shop. They still hung around for over 30 minutes waiting for us to come out. Finally they left but it surely tainted my image of Rome forever. Shame!

    • almathews
      3 April 2017 at 20:46

      That’s so crazy! I can’t believe they dedicated so much time to basically stalking you and your friends. Wow. Glad you’re safe but yeah I bet it definitely affected your views of Rome.

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