We Need to Talk About Belgium

Posted on Monday, May 20, 2019

I’d never been uncomfortable as a woman before I studied abroad. I didn’t know that we were not supposed to walk alone at night and weren’t supposed to travel by ourselves. The first time I learned this was when I had gone to several countries and cities by myself and some female friends kept asking me how I got the courage to do it. Courage? For what? Travelling alone as a female, of course. I didn’t know I wasn’t “supposed” to do it.

And then I went to Belgium.

Now at the time, I was studying abroad in Paris and France is really bad in terms of street harassment. It was definitely something I wasn’t used to, something that was so angering, and it stopped me from going out alone when shops started closing at night. It was awful. However I didn’t think it would – or could – get any worse when I went to one of the countries I’d wanted to go to my entire life: Belgium. Three beautiful languages, delicious chocolate, amazing architecture, and a great alternative culture. I was SO excited for this trip.

For the first day, I went to Brussels. And this happened. If you don’t care to read another blog post, I was:

  • Eyed by one group of guys who thought I was lost and started catcalling me.
  • Chased down a street by a different group of men who yelled they were going to rape me.
    (Also, some of those men weren’t just hanging out – they were in cars and actually had the energy to get out and pursue me. Not that it really matters, but that was shocking.)
  • Sleeping in bed when I awoke to cops outside my room investigating a shooting.

End day one in Belgium.

Luckily I had a Belgian train pass which meant I could take the trains whenever I wanted. I decided that I needed to get back to my hotel room each night before it got too late. Which meant like, 6:00pm.

I went to Ghent the next day. Beautiful city! But:

  • I got followed by this one guy for AN HOUR. Literally, an hour! He followed me all around the city, talking in all the languages he knew. I ignored him and never even looked at him and he followed me for AN HOUR. I even went into buildings, got dinner, etc, and he kept waiting outside to continue following me! After a time I didn’t feel threatened anymore but it was incredibly annoying and disrespectful.
  • I didn’t know I was being followed by two other men. They hadn’t said anything to me but they were both in the back of my selfies all across town. I noticed this when I went through my Ghent photos much later.

I literally ran from the metro stop to my hostel that night. Nothing happened, but after the night before, I didn’t want to risk ANYTHING.

Nothing notable happened in Bruges the next day. I mean, I guess by this point you might have figured out that I did get catcalled at least once an hour but it wasn’t even significant anymore. When I got back to Brussels before the sun set, I was walking to my bus stop and there were a bunch of men sitting outside at a restaurant. You know how restaurants have outdoor seating? Imagine that being full, but with literally all men. They all turned to me and catcalled. Some of them started getting up from their seats and I picked up my pace, but didn’t want to run and look scared. It was all of them there. I focused on getting back home safely then. It’s like catcalling and terrorizing women is such a big part of the culture there that it’s engrained.

I mean, I live in Baltimore and I felt so much more scared there than here.

I wrote a few blog posts on Belgium and they’re all true. I do think Belgium is beautiful and charming. I do think it has a fascinating history. I do recommend going there if it interests you. But of all the countries I’ve been to so far, it’s one I will never go back to without a travel buddy.

This is something that deserves attention. Of course, the men who do these types of things probably don’t care or actually like that they disturb us women. But it helps if men who do care start having this conversation with other men. It helps if you see a lady being harassed and you ask what’s going on.

“Safe” countries aren’t necessarily safe, and aren’t necessarily comfortable. This was my own personal experience and it could differ drastically from other women’s, but if you were to ask me if Belgium is safe, I’d say no.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any similar experiences in Belgium or otherwise?

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