“Hey sexy! Wanna get in my car?” “Hey girl, where are you going?” Women all over the world are harassed on the street every day, on the receiving end of everything from whistling to lewd comments and propositions. Over the course of September, a Dutch woman decided to take a selfie with her harasser every time she was catcalled, and she posted the results on an Instagram account called DearCatcallers.
Noa Jansma, 20, a student living in Amsterdam and studying design in Eindhoven, started the project on August 29. She wanted to “create awareness about the objectification of women in everyday life”. Her mantra? “It’s not a compliment”.
She posted 24 photos over the course of the month, her expression sombre in each one, while men grin stupidly or pose, thumbs up, behind her. In a couple of the photos, men take the opportunity to put their arms around her while she takes the selfie. The photos were taken in Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Barcelona, where she spent a few days in September.
“It’s a way of reversing the power ratio”
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Jansma about why she started the project, and what she’s trying to achieve.
The project started as a kind of indirect response to one time when I was in a train and a group of guys were filming me while saying sexual things to me. It made me realise that I have the right to respond, that I can reverse this power ratio. They only do it because they have a power over me. They do it knowing that I can’t say anything back. They don’t actually think that I will give them my phone number.
Street harassment is a problem all over the world. You can ignore it and just continue with your life. But it happens a lot, and not just to me but to all of my friends as well. We were talking about it in class, and a lot of my male friends didn’t know that this was such a daily problem for women. It was funny – half the class knew exactly what I was talking about and half the class didn’t believe me. The men were curious. So I thought, ‘I’ll just show you how often it happens’.
That’s why I’m doing it: on a personal level, I finally have a way to shift this power; and on an educational level, I can show the outside world what it’s like to get this every day.
I had walked around with the idea for a couple of months and never dared to actually do it. I thought that the men would be suspicious because they’re being rude and disrespectful and then suddenly I want a selfie? They’re going to think I’m getting evidence so I can report them to the police.
And of course, they’re so innocent, it didn’t occur to them. In the photos they’re all laughing; they look proud of themselves. They really don’t get that catcalling is a bad thing. Some of them honestly think that they’re paying me a compliment. Initially, I was scared asking men for a photo, because I didn’t know how they would react. Then I realised no one ever got angry and they all agreed.
I didn’t even get a photo of all of the times I was catcalled. Sometimes they would be in a car or on a bike so I would miss them, or if it was dark or I was alone I wouldn’t do it for safety reasons.
This is a way of educating men about the problem. It’s not my role to explain to every man who harasses me. It’s too much work and this project can reach far more people. Men symbolise this problem but it’s not an attack on them individually.
Street harassment will now be punishable by law in Amsterdam from January 1, 2018. Anyone who catcalls, follows, asks for sex or harasses a woman can face a fine of up to 4,100 euros.
Jansma says that she’s had a very positive response to the project, with women messaging her and thanking her for drawing attention to the problem, and with men even apologising and saying that they had no idea it was that bad. And, as this is feminism and the internet, she’s also been on the receiving end of some pretty nasty trolling messages.
She’s finished her month of selfies but it’s not the end of the project. She’s hoping to take it international, by passing the baton on to another woman elsewhere in the world, who will do it in her city for a month. DearCatcallers could go global – educating the world about street harassment, one selfie at a time.