As Sofie Peeters walked down the streets of Brussels, men catcalled her, followed her, called her rude names and asked how much she cost. She wondered: Was she doing something wrong?
Peeters, a film student, took a hidden camera to chronicle the harassment she underwent regularly on the streets. When she confronted the men who called out to her, they told her to shut up and keep walking.
“You should be thanking us, 'Thank you for making me feel like a woman!' ” one man argued to Peeters, saying that the only way to avoid it was to have a man walk alongside her.
Other women shared their strategies for coping with harassment: One told Peeters that if she was wearing a skirt she would change before going out for a walk. Another said she constantly wore headphones to dull the annoyance, seeing but not hearing the catcalls.
The broadcast of the documentary "Femme de la Rue" ignited a firestorm last week in Belgium and France over the unwanted attention that many women report getting in the streets.
The furor appears to be fueling real action: The Belgium interior minister said more must be done to squelch the phenomenon and plans to introduce legislation against harassment, according to Belgian media. Brussels will impose fines of up to $300 for sexual intimidation this fall.
French feminists have seized on the film as an example of why its new, tougher sexual harassment law was needed, passed not long after the French housing minister was catcalled inside the French National Assembly while wearing a modest summer dress.
After a journalist tweeted that he had never heard of the same problems in France, the film also spawned a Twitter hashtag, #harcelementderue, as European women told of the insults they had weathered on the streets.
“A turtleneck or a bikini –- it makes no difference,” one French-speaking user wrote in frustration.
Peeters has also come under fire: Most of the men in the film appear to be North African immigrants, spurring accusations of racism. Anti-immigrant bloggers have argued that the film should be seen as an example of the ills of Muslim and North African culture.
The film student told a Flemish television station that she had feared the film might be seen as racist because so many of the catcallers were immigrants, but she insisted that was not her intent and that she had simply chosen to record what she experienced in her own neighborhood.
Peeters also interviewed a male friend who recalled hooting at women from cars, blaming social taboos in his culture -- it isn’t clear exactly where he is from -- for building up frustration around sex. Yet Peeters also cast a critical eye on the objectification of women in Western advertising, suddenly noticing naked women on posters all around her in Brussels.
"How can we be respected as women when we're constantly being depicted as a kind of blow-up doll?" she asked.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles