Being a woman, especially one who travels, is rife with contradictions. Traveling 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. And this isn’t even while traveling. It’s just living my normal, daily life. 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. We learn to compartmentalize, blame ourselves, and pretend it didn’t happen.
But there’s a point where the already-crossed line is crossed even further.
And that was 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 colors, and small backpacks. Nothing that shouted ‘tourist’ or ‘American’. Just your average end-of-winter, just-before-spring outfits in Europe.
I never dress to draw attention to myself, either in daily life or when traveling, but this stuff happens regularly. It’s whatever (not really, but you get used to it).
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 a while 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 as having been 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 decided to write 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 pop up in the back of my mind.
As I walk alone down a street populated with lots of men. As I’m walking home in the evening and re-route myself onto well-lit streets. 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’m the object of 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.
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 during 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.