On being a woman in Amsterdam

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.”

©Amber Leijen

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.

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29 thoughts on “On being a woman in Amsterdam

  1. Samuel

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter. It’s always interesting to see cultural differences between countries, although in this case I would prefer there were no gap…
    I’m happy there are some places on this planet where you can freely be yourself 🙂

    1. Amsterdive

      Thank you so much Samuel for taking the time to read it. This is one of the very reasons I feel so at home and so attached to Amsterdam. Because, as you pointed, here I can fully be myself.

  2. Cheng

    As a gay man i experienced the exact same liberating freedom after moving here. People dont have to cheer for my gayness but I love the whole ‘yeah good for you, do your thing whatever it is as long as you don’t bother me doing my thing’ attitude.
    Back home I’d get all sort of remarks thrown at me during the day. Here it only seems to be mostly some of the arab people who don’t agree with the Dutch freedom and tolerance. I still wouldn’t walk hand in hand through Amsterdam nieuw west 😉

    1. Amsterdive

      LGBT and women’s rights often seem to go hand in hand, right? I was discussing exactly the same with a gay friend who comes from eastern Europe and finally feels he can be open about his sexuality, and publicly exchange affection with his partner without people around giving it a second look. Thank you Cheng for sharing your experience as a gay man in Amsterdam!

  3. Sarah Kim, Tales From a Fork

    I love this. I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t have to avoid construction workers. Background: I’m from New York City and I would get catcalled A LOT. But here the worst that really happens is I get stared at, and I’ve had one guy reach for my hand, but then apologized when I pulled back. HA– can you imagine– something apologizing for hitting on you? I love that Amsterdam is so good with sexuality, but hope they get on board soon with racism and milder versions of it aka social tendencies and ignorance. I’ve experienced varying levels of racism here every few weeks since moving here from NYC, but that’s Europe in general. As for the independent and outspoken part of women here, I don’t find that to be culturally shocking coming from NYC. I’ve definitely experienced sexist comments here so I’m wondering if this gender equality is recent. I feel like sometimes that women are overcompensating with the gender equality like taking independence to an extreme and really pushing for it instead of it naturally letting it happen. Of course, this is from my experience of living in New York, which actually sounds like a mix of Amsterdam and Portugal! I’m traveling for my blog the next couple of weeks but when I get back, perhaps we should meet up for coffee? I love talking about cultural differences especially in regards to women!! sarah@talesfromafork.com

    1. Amsterdive

      Hey Sarah, thank you so much for reading and sharing your experience! There are a lot of sides to this issue, and it is not always black and white that’s for sure. We should definitely meet up for coffee, I’ll e-mail you 😉

  4. Joana

    Também trabalhei num hotel mesmo no centro e o meu patrão também se chamava Rob, será o mesmo sitio????
    o artigo está interessante 🙂

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  6. shamimsobhani

    It’s pretty sad that there are people who see women in a different light than men, purely because they’re women. There’s not enough respect and that needs to change.

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  9. manishasareen

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Understanding how women are viewed culturally is very essential.

    I am very passionate about the rights of women, and I am interested in learning if you have been to other countries and your experience there.

    Thank you so much!

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  11. Tulay

    I’m very surprised for the similarity of view about the women status between our society. I understand completly you (from Turkey)

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