Reclaiming Public Space: Catcalls of Nimma

By Paula Werdnik

I met with the two women behind ‘Catcalls of Nimma’ on a rainy and chilly Saturday morning. Having initially only met via a Zoom meeting, it was great to meet in person and get a behind-the-scenes sneak peek of their work (at a safe social distance). While I was worried at first that the rain would wash away the chalk, they reassured me that wet pavement is actually quite easy to work with. I took some photos while they worked on a new piece, on the Hatertseweg street in Nijmegen. We later found shelter from the rain at a quiet outdoor patio and further discussed their work over a warm cup of coffee. I came to learn more about their work and the larger initiative behind ‘Catcalls of Nimma’. 

The two creators behind ‘Catcalls of Nimma’ are two university students called Judith and Roos. For those unfamiliar with the initiative, ‘Catcalls of Nimma’ is a way to “reclaim public space.” The duo receive messages via their Instagram page (@catcallsofnimma) of stories of street harassment and then they write these in chalk where it had happened (keeping the identity of those who shared their story anonymous). They usually do 4-5 pieces per chalking session – which goes to show how often it happens. 

Once hearing about it, I thought it was an incredible initiative. I was shocked by the frequency of such street harassment experiences, and how they had happened in places I knew! Often we tend to think that street harassment happens in some distant place, or worse, that they don’t happen at all. But these incidents of street harassment are sadly very common and occur in places that we wouldn’t normally think of; like main roads, city centers, and near university campuses – places that we frequently visit. The work of Catcalls of Nimma makes visible what is so often invisible in public spaces. The reality of street harassment and the need for safe public spaces is highlighted by such initiatives, and gets a conversation started about public safety and anti-street harassment. 

But what exactly does the term “catcalling” mean? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines catcalling as “the act of shouting, harassing, and often sexually suggestive, threatening, or derisive comments at someone publicly”. In the highlights of their Instagram page, Catcalls of Nimma defines catcalling as: a “form of harassment, primarily sexual harassment that consists of unwanted comments, provocative gestures, honking, wolf-whistlings, indecent exposures, stalking, persistent sexual advances, and touching by strangers, in public areas such as streets, shopping malls and public transportation.” 

This links to bigger issues of public space and public safety. Who are public spaces made for? Is everyone equally safe in these public spaces? The answer is, sadly, no. In fact, Leslie Kern wrote a whole book titled Feminist City about how public spaces are exclusive; predominantly designed by, and catering to men. In an article for The Guardian, Kern elaborates on this issue. Kern argues that phallic towers, dark alleys, problematic road names and statues of men are all “reminders of masculine power.” Our public spaces are not neutral but rather “built environments” that “still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination”, and that cities reflect the norms of the societies that built them.

There is an issue with the accessibility of spaces (Kern gives the example of mothers in cities needing to use public transport with baby prams) and the practices that are deemed acceptable and not acceptable (Kern gives the example of breastfeeding in public). Kern writes, “Fear-mongering keeps women “in our place” and limits our access to the public realm. It also reinforces the idea that women should seek safety and protection in the nuclear family home.” 

Initiatives such as Catcalls of Nimma are trying to further bring light to these issues. The initiative was started in Nijmegen last October, yet the initiative is part of a bigger organization called Chalk Back. On their website, Chalk Back defines itself as “an international youth-led movement committed to ending gender-based street harassment with public chalk art, digital media and education.” It is an organization that is entirely youth-led, with 88% of their participants under the age of 25, and 54% under the age of 18. It is a movement that spans 6 continents, 49 countries, and 163 cities. Chalk Back includes smaller branches called “Catcalls of _____” in many cities across the world, including many cities in the Netherlands. For example, Catcalls of Amsterdam. The various branches of the organization stay connected via a group chat, and through social media. Both Judith and Roos applied to create an account for Nijmegen last October and have been working on it together ever since. 

While the initiative is part of the larger Chalk Back organization, the separate branches have a lot of freedom in their own initiatives, they explained. The creators have the freedom to handle their own Instagram account, and to design and create the chalk art. This allows for their own touch of creativity. In the highlights of the Catcalls of Nimma Instagram page, their main goals are defined as; firstly, raising awareness by making the issue “visible” in order to “start a conversation”. Secondly, they aim to to fight back in a safe way that says ‘this is not okay’. Thirdly, they aim to open people’s eyes by showing the reality of the issue and demonstrating that ‘what we post is real…and it needs to stop’. 

They also explained that their personal aim is to keep their account as open as possible and to not discriminate against any experiences of street harassment. They also chalk the experiences of those who have faced street harassment in the form of sexism, transphobia, homophobia or racism. There is a common misconception that street harassment only affects women, but it actually affects all kinds of people, including men. 

“It is important to include men in the conversation”, we discussed, because street harassment does not just happen to women . It is important for all people to be included in the conversation about what it means to have a safe public space and how we can collectively work against street harassment. 

Yet, the great duality of ‘Catcalls of Nimma’ is that it reaches a variety of audiences. While the main audience engaged with the platform is young adults and university students, those who do not have Instagram are able to see the work in a public space rather than a virtual one. Judith and Roos mentioned the importance of public engagement. Usually when they are chalking, people approach them about what it is that they are doing. Some feel confronted, some are indifferent, and some are very positive about the initiative. But in any case it gets a conversation started about the issue.

Judith and Roos do their best to inform people about the initiative, and the issue at hand. The hope is that the chalk pieces will spark other similar conversations between people who see it in the street. The feedback they have received has predominantly been positive and supportive. They were also featured in the ‘De Gelderlander’ newspaper, Radboud’s Vox Magazine, have collaborated with ARA (Anti-Racism Awareness Radboud), and have been featured in several other platforms and articles. 

While they were initially nervous about people’s reactions and online comments, they now have become experts at what they do. They draw support from one another and the larger Chalk Back community. Despite criticisms from a rare few, they have received a vast amount of positive feedback. They hope to continue engaging with the issue both online and in real-life. And hopefully we, as individuals and as a society, can collectively continue to draw attention to the issue of public safety, create greater awareness and, ultimately, create safer public spaces for everyone. 

For more information, please check:

https://www.chalkback.org/

https://www.instagram.com/catcallsofnimma/

Sources: 

“Catcalling.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catcalling. Accessed 3 Jun. 2021.

“Chalk Back .” Chalk Back, 2019, http://www.chalkback.org/. 

Kern, Leslie. “ ‘Upward-Thrusting Buildings Ejaculating into the Sky’ – Do Cities Have to Be so Sexist?” The Guardian , 6 July 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jul/06/upward-thrusting-buildings-ejaculating-cities-sexist-leslie-kern-phallic-feminist-city-toxic-masculinity.

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