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July 8, 2020

From catcalling on the streets to online harassment during COVID-19

photo: @heidigita

My name is Ambrien Rukhsar Moeniralam. I’m 18 years old, and studying media and editing at the Regional Education Centre (ROC) in Amsterdam. I’ve been an intern with Mama Cash’s communications team since February 2020.

I couldn’t have been more excited last year when Mama Cash asked if I wanted to be featured in their #MyBodyIsMine campaign, with other bad-ass activists like Daantje Bons, Nidhi Goyal and Alok Vaid-Menon. I have always been a fan of Mama Cash's work, and it’s an amazing feeling to be acknowledged by them and to know they support me. In fact, the reason why Mama Cash wanted to collaborate with me and why I am interning here right now is because of my activism: I am the founder of @catcallsofams on Instagram.

With this platform, I am trying to raise awareness about gender-based harassment, to de-normalise catcalling and to give people a space to share their stories. Catcalling is a vulgar whistle or shout – for example “hey hot stuff” – usually directed at women. People who have experienced harassment in Amsterdam submit their stories to @catcallsofams. We then go to the place where the incident took place, and write the specific catcall on the pavement in chalk. We then add the tags #stopstreetharassment and @catcallsofams so people know where to find us.

I have noticed that both online and offline harassment have intensified throughout the years. Street harassment, in particular catcalling, has also become worse. I think that these are the main reasons for this trend: 

  • Although it has always been around, catcalling has become normalised. Just look at this video showing the feminists who ruled the 70s here in the Netherlands making a statement by harassing men.
  • There is a lack of awareness. People forget that some men never learned that catcalling is wrong. Maybe they grew up with it and thought that it was absolutely normal. Some men really, truly think that they are giving you a compliment with a catcall. And others think that they’re being funny. This is why I try to respond to catcalls by explaining why they are problematic. Hopefully this makes the perpetrator understand and helps him to change his behaviour.
  • Toxic masculinity is widespread. Some men grew up within the traditional cultural norms of how men should behave. For example, they were raised to believe that you should not express your emotions freely, that crying is a sign of weakness, and that men must radiate strength. These beliefs and behaviours are harmful, both to men and to women. Some men know that catcalling is hurtful, but they turn it into a joke. They may also catcall so that they feel like they have power over you. I think a lot of women can relate to the sense of how small you feel when you are harassed.
  • Peer pressure is also a contributing factor. This applies to men of all ages, but particularly to 14-20 year-olds who deal the most with peer pressure. They really want to prove themselves to their friends, and this sometimes translates into ‘acting tough’ by catcalling or harassing girls or women on the streets.
  • Freedom of speech is increasingly used to justify harassment, both online and offline. Some men claim that they should be able to say whatever they want. One time I was chalking the catcall “Damn, those tits!” in front of the Film Academy in Amsterdam when two older men passed by. They complained to me that what they say is never good enough. They argued that men should be able to express themselves, and that if they don’t catcall women will not know how attractive they are.

Online harassment has also increased since the Internet has become more accessible. People feel protected behind their screens, and this makes it easier for them to harass whoever they want to harass – anonymously if they wish. 

And now, with the pandemic, the harassment is even worse. Everything has shifted to a different realm, and we are now experiencing online what usually happens offline. For many people, the online world has become their only reality. People have more spare time, and are therefore more likely to use the internet as a tool for harassment. We understand that a lot of people are frustrated right now, but this does not give anyone a reason or an excuse to harass others online. 

We are very excited that @catcallsofams is now part of an online campaign called #datmeenjeniet. This is a brand new campaign from Movisie and InHolland to raise awareness about online discrimination and harassment. Our hope is that both the internet and our streets will be safer and even more fun spaces for everyone in the future.