In Portugal, where I grew up, there was an un-written code of conduct for “decent women”: whatever happens, never. make. the. first. move. with a specimen of the opposite sex. It didn’t matter if that move was about wanting to keep in touch with someone you found pleasant, interesting, or worthy of having in your social-circle. Never. make. the. first. move. was not something to be argued against when you were reasoning with yourself. The “we live in the 21st century, for god’s sake” argument wasn’t of use. The experience of having attempted a first move in the past (or giving the impression you were making one) had been powerful enough to teach any girl that, in such a situation, whatever could go wrong, would.
Then one day, in my early times of Amsterdam, I met this guy on the set of a short-movie I took part in. He was one of the cameramen, and I had found him one of the most positive and cheerful creatures I had ever come across. Before I settled in Amsterdam, I would have never dared to ask the telephone number of a male. But at that point I had already turned my survival-mode on. I knew that if I wanted to be happy in a new environment I had to make friends. I remember thinking: “Damn it. If he thinks I have any intention other than friendship, then it is his own problem”. He didn’t. We became good friends, and through him I met more of these happy positive types. The fact that I remember this simple episode so well shows how much of a turning point this was in my mindset.
Let me give you a bit of the context I grew up in. In Portugal it is common place to name a woman a slut. You hear it on the streets, you hear it in school, you hear it at home sometimes. Slut – or puta – is a common used word, not only applied to sex-workers, but to every woman, in different circumstances, which can vary from wearing a specific sort of clothing, to expressing sexual desire. Although it is an extremely scary word for a female, women are not shy at using it either. This word translates into a whole concept which might prevent you from doing simple things like biking to work, walking a specific street, wearing a mini skirt, or from dancing freely in a social circumstance because, if you are unlucky – or do the wrong thing – you might become the whore (pardon my French). And I’m not even unpacking how that concept translates in more serious situations where men feel entitled to harm women because they were “asking for it.”
In Amsterdam, naming a woman a slut is showing yourself in a very bad light ( to say the least), even if the woman in question works in the sex industry.
Also, people aren’t really interested in whom a given woman is sharing her bed with, or if she is going out every night to party. This reminds me of another episode. During my first year in the city I worked at this hotel in the city center. One evening, I stayed at the hotel bar after my shift, sipping beers with Anna, my colleague at the time. Those beers turned into a dinner, a walk around the city, and eventually, we ended up dreading the fact we had to cycle back home, just to return a few hours later, to start the morning shift at 7 a.m. “Let’s ask Rob if we can sleep at the hotel tonight. It’s not full, so I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem”, my colleague proposed. I looked at her, horrified. “Are you nuts? What will Rob think?”. Rob was this Dutch middle-aged man, who happened to be the hotel manager. “What do you mean, what will he think? He will think we went out, drank beers, had fun, and don’t feel like cycling home anymore”. The idea that my boss would see me out, late, having fun, drinking beers, really frightened me. Back in Portugal that would be the entrance door to stigmatization at work, as a female. “What if he assumes we are no decent women in general, nor trustworthy employees in specific?”. Why on earth would Rob think that?”, she asked me, puzzled.
Now, I have never been the prude type, perhaps quite the contrary. But that didn’t save me from absorbing some cultural ways and customs of my homeland. We have this expression in Portugal which goes by: “À mulher de César não basta ser honesta, tem de parecer honesta” – “To Cesar’s wife, it is not enough to be honest, she has to look honest”. Yeah, it is exactly what you read. Keeping up appearances is of extreme importance in a latin culture. So you see my dilemma that evening. I had to look like I was an honest woman – it was not enough to just BE honest. “Why would Rob even think that?”, Anna repeated. “I don’t know”, I mumbled, like a kid trapped in their own logic. “Come on, the only think he will care about is you doing your job the next day”.
Doing my job the next day. Right. As for the rest, moet jezelf weten, or in my free translation: that’s your own business. Here is one of the very reasons I love living in Amsterdam. How could I not? The experience of being a woman in this city is very liberating. Dutch woman are known to be very independent and outspoken, and expat females tend to follow the example. What the neighbor does in his private life is his own business – being a woman doesn’t change a word about the first sentence. Taking initiative as to approaching a man, and having your boss not caring about what you do in your free time are just examples, but they are important ones since they help creating a safe environment for women, in which they have space and legitimacy to express themselves. In the meanwhile, the ghosts that popped up in my mind when I arrived here do not bother me anymore. I don’t feel the urge to avoid a construction site, or a parking lot full of bus drivers, as I did in the past, because I know I won’t be harassed. Slut-shaming? I don’t know what that is anymore. I wear my mini-skirt as often as I feel like – I even bike wearing one -, and nobody assumes I am asking for attention. And now that I think about it, with all due respect: Mr. Cesar: get a life. In Amsterdam, the only thing I need to look like is, actually, myself.