on street harassments
Chalk Back! Street harassment
- Adeline ·
- 1 June 2021
Groningen, known as the healthiest city, the city with historic monuments, an overall vibrant city due to its high student population. Different students, national and international, come to pursue not only their academic degree, but also to find their second home, make a lot of friends, finding their career possibilities, hobbies, and even passion; the things you want to do to contribute to the society, for a bigger meaning. For Master Media Studies student, Roos de Boer, it is to help others speak up and raise awareness on street harassment around the city. I had the amazing opportunities to interview her to gain better insights into the movement she is initiating in Groningen.
In August 2019, when listening to the Damn Honey podcast featuring @CatCallsofAms, Roos got the inspiration to do the same for the city she was born and raised in, an initiative to fight back against street harassment in Groningen. The frustration she felt from listening to the podcast then grows into action with the creation of the Instagram account @CatCallsofGrunn. She discovered that it was a huge movement, first started in New York with @CatCallsofNY as part of the worldwide youth-led movement called Chalk Back, aiming to end gender-based street harassment with public chalk art, digital media, and education.
Starting with her personal experience, and two stories from her friends, she chalked the street word-for-word the harassment they receive, right on the street where it happened, to gain attention from people in the city. “Chalking is symbolic,” she said, “it means that we are taking back the streets, and taking up spaces literally, in order to fight back street harassment. When people walk past and read the writing of the word someone got harassed by, they reacted and can imagine the feeling to be the victims.” The feelings sparked from reading what is written on the streets in chalks will then hopefully move them and make them realize how serious the matter is, happening every single day, to real human beings, just like us.
Street harassment, she said, is highly embedded in our society, no matter the country. Because it mostly happens in public, people often undermine the impact of it on the victims and chose to be silent. Alongside that, it has a lot to do with how we are raised to look at gender and masculinity and femininity, normalizing that it is part of being a (wo)man and as an inevitable part of growing up. It is so deeply rooted in us to the point most victims are even not aware that they are being harassed and learned to keep their heads low and walk away instead of speaking up and fighting back. As if it is a shame for the victims and it is their fault for dressing up to open, for walking alone, for being out and about way too late. And there it goes, the vicious cycle of harassment, happening every single day, to people around us. Roos, through the Instagram account Cat Calls of Grunn, is trying to break these old patterns and change the habits.
“It is important to speak up against street harassment because it is NOT normal. Everyone should be able to walk and be in public places wearing whatever without the fear of being harassed and feeling unsafe,” she stressed. “Street harassment has been undermined, but it is the base of a pyramid effect, contributing to a culture of violence, and the negative impact of normalizing this can be huge.” She added that it might be hard to understand if one never experiences it on their own, showing that it took empathy to be able to imagine how it must feel being in the shoes of the victims.
What are people’s responses to her work? Most of the time, people who are walking past her chalking on the streets will stop and ask what she is doing, therefore initiating new conversations. People who do not care usually chose to walk away. An ironic experience she had was one time when she was in a live television interview talking about her activism, she at the same time received harassing messages from social media, which she then posted to her Instagram story, noting how it is literally happening even as she is speaking up against it.
With support from friends and families, she runs the page on her own, buys the chalks, and goes to the crime scene to do her work. She almost always brings one friend along with her when doing so. “When I chalk, I feel vulnerable. So it is always nice to have a friend around, just to be safe.” Furthermore, she has done interviews with television channels, with universities news even though not yet with the institutions itself, also joined meetings and interviews with the Nachtraad or the Night Mayor. She has also been in contact with GroenLinks, a green political party in The Netherlands. Most of the funding still comes from her personal savings, but she is hopeful about Cat Calls of Grunn to expand its network and hopefully able to reach more people as well as stakeholders to further support her work.
One thing she cherished so much from her experiences so far is the responses from others who have experienced harassment and the support from people on the internet. “People said that they felt the power to speak up and talk back. They realized that it is not their fault, and they learned to not accept and normalize it.” She added, that even guys also DM-ed her, saying that it opens their eyes because they never experience it personally. “A funny thing someone once told me was, if his guy friends said that it is not a big deal, he would show the Cat Calls of Grunn to them, to prove that they are wrong. It is nice to think that these people feel like they are being heard, and my account can be the channel for their voices.” Roos mentioned.
Has she ever received any hate for chalking and speaking up? Haters are inevitable, but Roos said that she can actually only count them on one hand. “I received some nasty comments on Facebook in the beginning, but now it is mostly positive responses.” She always tried to make sure she herself never post anything offensive or comments that might hurt others. However, when posting her chalk work, she always tagged the location of where it happens, and sometimes if it is in a restaurant or cafes, some people would DM-ed her, expressing that it might damage the reputation of the business. “I can’t treat someone’s experience differently just because it happens in a café or restaurant. The point is to not hurt or damage the name of the brand, but to raise awareness that harassments can happen, literally, anywhere. I don’t believe in cancel culture, as I also see humans as ever-learning being, and I believe in change for the good as well.”
As a master student, she is doing all of this while balancing her work and study life. She started back when she was on a gap year, and it was really convenient to go out chalking anytime. With her work, she has less time to spend on chalking, but the pandemic is a blessing in disguise, allowing her to be more flexible with her schedule. “There was a period when the account was inactive since I was really occupied with other things,” she recalled, “but I keep on thinking about the account and how I should keep on going, and that is why I don’t want to stop.” She wants to give all her attention when answering people’s DMs, as she knows it is a real person being vulnerable to her, so she usually has a dedicated time to open and answers their stories. “Another factor is the weather, since it is not wise to chalk before a big rain or storm. As usual, the Dutch weather can be quite unpredictable,” she added.
Now you may be intrigued and want to know: how can I also help contribute? Although still doing it mostly solo, she is also keeping the plan to formed teams of groups of volunteers to help her run the account in the future. For now, you can slide into the DM of the account and offer to go on a walk with her to chalk! Before the pandemic, she planned to do a chalking event back in April 2020, on the National Anti-Street Harassment Week, inspired by other cities running the account @CatCallsof, but it has been cancelled until further notice. However, she emphasize on a very important matter: “Change starts with yourself.” We all can partake in going against street harassment by raising conversations within our own friends circle, by sharing the @CatCallsofGrunn account to the people we know, and by speaking up. As bystanders, we also have a huge role in supporting the victims, take action, and help intervene when we see others being harassed.
If you or another person you know have experience street harassments in the city, do not hesitate to send a message. She accepts reports in both Dutch and English, and all her posts are written with both Dutch and English captions. As Groningen is an international hub, the account is also important for new-coming international students who are in a totally new environment, and Cat Calls of Grunn is present to be the safe space for everyone. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that this account alone is not going to change much, but the snowball effect of the awareness Roos is bringing up through her account, must act as a reminder for all of us to partake in the collective work of taking and looking out for one another and to end street harassment!