“In September 2015, I was going back home after a night out. I was on the phone with my boyfriend, so I didn’t realize someone was following me. I first felt a slap on the butt. When I turned, a guy tried to pull my blouse and then he clutched my wrists, trying to immobilize me.
October 2015. During rush hour, in an incredibly full bus, a man kept ‘falling’ on me and nudging me on the breast. When he drew closer, I realized he was masturbating against my body.
December 2015. On the metro, a man sat in front of me and started asking me personal things I didn’t want to answer. I was bothered by his tone, it felt slimy from the start. When I thought he would give up, he took out his phone and I heard the indistinct sound of two camera clicks taking pictures of me.
I was scared, but I was never hurt, so I never thought about reporting these episodes to the police”.
Beatrice was a 20-year-old student when all these episodes happened to her. But a 2014 large-scale survey by Hollaback! and Cornell University reported that, on average, more than 81,5% of European women have been harassed before the age of 17.
Now some countries are starting to tackle the issue, extending hate crime protection to women.
A matter of criminal law
A hate crime is a prejudice-motivated crime that occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of their membership to a certain social group or race. Incidents may involve physical assault, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse, or insults.
In 2014, the Nottingham’s Women Center started campaigning to make misogyny a hate crime. Two years later, Nottinghamshire Police was the first force in the UK to record street and sexual harassment as misogyny.
Last September, the Law Commission, an independent advisory body of England and Wales, announced they will support the initiative to make misogyny a hate crime at the national level. Although most of the evidence is coming from women, the Commission will evaluate whether “sex or gender” as a protected characteristic should include women and men or women only.
The Italian Parliament will discuss a similar bill in October. But much of the political debate has focused on the protection extended to sexual orientation and gender identity, as Italy is one of the few European countries lacking legislation on homo and transphobia.
The new law would punish the propaganda of hateful ideas and acts of provocation, but a recently added amendment reaffirms the principle of freedom of opinion and expression. “In theory, it is a worthy initiative, as it aims at protecting fragile people. But I’m afraid its application won’t be easy, in terms of discerning what constitutes freedom of speech and what is crime” says Simona Catania, a criminal lawyer who provides counseling to abused women.
The new bill would introduce higher sentences whenever other crimes would be perpetrated because of the gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. “This maybe could work as a deterrent,” says doubtfully Catania. “What is positive, though, is the extension of free legal aid to these victims” she adds. “Often they don’t press charges because they cannot afford the cost of a process”.
“This is the picture stuck in my mind, people’s indifference”
On two of the occasions mentioned above, Beatrice was in a public space. But when she reached out for help, she was left alone.
“On the metro, a group of boys just laughed at me. On the bus, frantic and tearful, I remember people looking straight at me, wild-eyed, students and adults, and they said nothing. This is the picture stuck in my mind, people’s indifference”.
“Many people are not aware that this kind of harassment happens, and when they see a woman asking for help or fighting back, they don’t know how to react” confirms Roberta Masella, founder of NextStopMi, an association born in 2019 to prevent gender-based public violence and to promote a safe and harassment-free environment on public transport.
After trying to partner with the Municipality of Milan without success, they reached out to local councils and planned awareness events in schools, before COVID-19 hit.
They continue their activity on social media, using ironic images and tones to exorcise the fear of the harasser. “We want to change men’s and women’s perception of the issue. If every time we are harassed we keep minimizing, the chain will not be broken” argues Masella.
She thinks the new Italian law is not publicised enough and is skeptical about its effects.
“It all depends on how it will be implemented. If a perpetrator is not punished, he will likely continue his behaviour. And there is still a tendency to downplay and blame those who dare to talk about discriminating behaviours”, she concludes.
Beatrice agrees that even women don’t often talk about harassment. “When I share my experiences, other women talk about their stories and thank me for making them feel less lonely”, while men are often not aware that these episodes happen so frequently or they tend to downsize them.
“But it hits you: you wonder how to best dress when you go out, trying to avoid any kind of harassment. And then it happens anyway”.
A European approach
On 27 March 2019, the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on preventing and combating sexism in all areas of the public and private sphere.
Member states also agreed on a definition of sexism, as “any expression (act, word, image, gesture) based on the idea that some persons, most often women, are inferior because of their sex.”
Answering a call by the Committee of Ministers, the European Women’s Lobby is now implementing an awareness campaign called Sexism: See it. Name it. Stop it! in 9 Member States, namely, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Romania.
“For the first time, there is a definition of sexism that opens the door to public intervention in this matter,” says Ana Sofia Fernandes, Vice President of the European Women’s’ Lobby. Their campaign is targeting society at large as “everyday sexism is very much related to the continuous violence against women and girls”, being it physical or verbal.
In fact, the recommendation also encourages Member States to pass legislation that condemns sexism and criminalises sexist hate speech. It also requires that countries monitor the implementation of anti-sexist policies at the national level and report back periodically to the Council of Europe.
“We need women, and men as well, to understand that sexism is not acceptable, in any space,” says Fernandes. “We want men and boys to understand that cultural norms and gender stereotypes are also negative for them, and we want them to be our allies. So I am really in favor of making this recommendation visible”.