Interview | Catcalls of Amsterdam – In conversation with with activist Ambrien Moeniralam

Last year, the NDSM-wharf got some bad news coverage as there had been several reports of incidents at the wharf related to sexually offensive behaviour and abuse. This evokes feelings of insecurity, especially among female students living at the wharf. For this reason, many residents never cycle and walk home alone at night.

At the age of 15, activist Ambrien Moeniralam (18) founded the Instagram page Catcalls of Amsterdam. With this platform, she tries to create awareness around the issue of street harassment with an emphasis on ‘catcalling’. The latter refers to the act of shouting sexually suggestive things to someone on the street. Meanwhile, she has gathered a team around her and together they record countless experiences with coloured chalk on the paving tiles in Amsterdam. This is endorsed by the hashtag #StopStreetHarassment. Meanwhile, Ambrien is part of the international ‘Chalk Back Movement’, which fights street intimidation. From the 19th to the 25th of April is the International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Ambrien had organized an event especially for the occasion which would take place this Sunday at the NDSM-wharf. Due to the corona measures, the event had to be cancelled. That is why we are now going to have a conversation with her.

Ambrien, please tell me about yourself.

“At the moment, I’m in my second year of the Media & Editing Bachelor at the ROC in Amsterdam. I’ve been doing an internship for 6 months now at Mamacash; an organization that supports women’s movements and minorities worldwide. I’m part of the communication team and am partly responsible for their social media”.

That sounds cool! This internship is very much in line with your passion.

“Yeah, I’ve known them for a few years. Last year I was approached if I wanted to participate in a project. They asked me to be one of the faces for their #MyBodyIsMine campaign. I think it’s great what they’re doing, so I’m really in place there!”

How nice to hear! Almost two and a half years ago you started the account Catcalls of Amsterdam on Instagram. How did you come up with this idea?

“On December 16th, 2017 I was just scrolling on Instagram when I came across a photo of the account Catcalls of New York. I hadn’t read the text yet, so at first, I thought: ‘ah that looks cool’ and ‘it looks like street art’. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it was an entry from a 12-year-old girl. The bottom line was that someone had said that if it was legal, they would do all kinds of things to her. At that moment I was 15 years old myself and even though the age difference wasn’t that big, it shocked me a lot that as a 12-year-old girl she had experienced that. That’s just way too young. We only differed three years, but when you’re 15 years old you’re on a completely different level mentally and you understand a little bit what’s going on. When you’re 12 you just hit puberty, you’re very vulnerable and everything is new to you.

Then I went on to check out the account that was set up by Sophie Sandberg. I thought it was so cool that I had sent her a message that I think it’s very good to see how she deals with this problem in such a creative way and that I support her. Then suddenly I saw that Catcalls of Puerto Rico and Catcalls of Mexico had liked one of her posts. I then went to see if there was an account in the Netherlands as well, but there appeared to be none. So, I had sent Sophie a message to ask if I could start Catcalls or Amsterdam and she liked the idea very much. She was the first, the second official account was from London and the third official account was mine. And now there are over 150 accounts all over the world.”

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🇳🇱🇧🇪 Hoi, ik liep met mijn moeder door de kalverstraat. Toen riep een gast op een scooter: “Dag schoonheid, hoe veel vraag je voor een uurtje met mij op de achterbank?” naar me. Gelukkig is m’n moeder gelijk er op af gestapt en heeft ie z’n excuses aangeboden, maar of het echt gemeend was… I don’t know. • 🇬🇧🇺🇸 Hi, I was walking through the Kalverstraat with my mother. Then a guy on a scooter shouted: "Hello, beauty, how much do you ask for an hour in the back seat?" Luckily my mother went straight towards him, and he apologized, but if it was really meant … I don't know. ~ @x.fvh . #stopcatcalling #stopstreetharassment #amsterdam #iamsterdam #catcalling #catcallsofams

A post shared by Cat Calls of Amsterdam 🇳🇱 (@catcallsofams) on

So, there are a lot of similar accounts internationally. How is the interaction between you?

“I met Sophie in real life when she came here to see a friend. That’s when we also chalked together. It was very nice to meet the face behind the NY-account and she’s a very down to earth person, very sincere and sweet. Now we are in a WhatsApp group called Catcalls of the World with almost all the creators of the accounts. We talk in there on a daily basis. Now with the Corona crisis, we also have a lot of meetings to see how we can do certain things. We want to make sure that the link between all accounts can be made but that it also remains our own. So, there is a lot of contact and also in a very good and pleasant way. New people join us every day. Although some of them haven’t been in the group for very long, they feel comfortable sharing their experiences with us because it’s such an open environment. It feels like a very big family even though I haven’t even met every single one of them.”

I can imagine! The impressions you get can of course also be intense, and then you want to support each other and share experiences. You get a lot of reactions on your account; mostly positive but probably also negative. How do you react to this?

“Last year in January there was a lot of media attention for the account and that was also the first moment I received negative reactions. To be honest, I was quite surprised that I didn’t receive much more negativity. When it was a hot topic I got annoying DM’s, but those were mainly messages from teenage boys who wanted to provoke something. At that time, I was called names, but I don’t really respond to that because I don’t think it’s worth it. It happens more often that I get negative messages that I do want to respond to because I feel that I can get something out of them. It often turns out that this results in a very good conversation. At first, someone is just under the impression that catcalls are compliments, but in the end that person understands. Sometimes the latter is not the case and raising awareness is all the more important.

I’ve had a team for almost five months now. There are four of us. The moment I receive comments that I don’t know how to react to, I usually discuss it with my teammates. Then it’s a ‘pick your battle’ situation where I have to decide if I should go into something or if it’s better to leave it as it is. At one point I received so many messages that I couldn’t even respond to them. I often saw that other people were already sticking up for each other. It’s very nice to see that people support each other that way. Sometimes it got intense and one person attacked another. Then I blocked them because it has to remain a safe platform. I don’t mind if our followers and supporters read the negative comments, because I also think it’s important that they see that there really are people who disagree. But it depends on what they say. If there are racist comments, we choose to censor them.”

You have a great sense of responsibility and especially now that the account is growing so much, you are also monitoring it. As you say yourself, sexual harassment is a grey area. Some people don’t understand where the boundary lies. Maybe it’s about what is acceptable or what is not. What do you think about this?

“If people under my post respond that they think a certain comment is a compliment, I can understand that very well. ‘Hey girl, nice skirt’ can be a confusing remark. One person might see that as a compliment, but another person might not. But it also depends on who was the person who said it to you, how the facial expression was and what the tone of voice was. The whole body language plays a role. I can understand that it’s hard to get that from a post on Instagram.

I think it’s mainly because of where you draw your boundary, which differs per person. My limit is whether something is respectful or not. If someone would come to me and say: ‘hey, I want you to know that I think you are a very beautiful woman’ I would like that. I appreciate that because it’s said respectfully, and it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I could say ‘thank you’ and if the person would ask for my number I would respectfully decline. But if you yell ‘hot girl’ at me from a distance after which you call me a ‘whore’ because I don’t respond, it comes across as disrespectful, condescending and objectifying. I think many would agree, but that’s different for each person.”

What do you think is the core of the problem that needs to be addressed?

“The core of the problem lies not so much in the upbringing. From home, you will be taught to be respectful towards each other. I think the core lies with puberty, where there are macho behaviour and peer pressure among groups of friends. Sometimes there can be a genuine interest in the girl. By the way, not only men are guilty of this, but women as well. But the core lies mainly in the unequal position of power between woman and man that has always been and still is. That is why this is a social problem and it mainly occurs on the streets”.

How could you deal with this?

“My personal goal of this account is to educate and to inform. I think that sex education in the Netherlands could be better. I think that the class should be more extensive and that there is more attention to it. It is important to highlight both the ugly and beautiful sides. Topics such as ‘rape culture’ should be addressed. The emphasis should not be on warning the woman, but on addressing the man to raise awareness. This to emphasize that it is not okay, but also to show how you can approach someone if you want to compliment them. It is mainly about a target group that is not aware of it. That’s why education is a tool that cannot solve the problem right away but can improve the situation”.

Do you also see yourself having a role in sex education in high schools?

“I don’t call myself a professional, so I don’t know if I’m cut out for that. But I’d really like to be invited as a guest and discuss the topic. During sex education, often the negative is emphasized, and children are frightened about the dangers. That’s what I got from high school. I would emphasize the positive side and make the lesson very interactive because children respond well to it”.

I saw that you held a TED-talk for TEDxAmsterdamWomen at the end of last year and that you also appeared on television several times. What do you think about the media approaching you? Did you expect that?

 “No, not at all! By the time the media approached me, Catcalls of Amsterdam existed for a year and a few months. It all started with an interview with One World, after which it spread like wildfire. I never expected that I would become the face behind it because I wanted to keep myself a bit in the background. I did find it a bit scary when people knew who I was because not everyone agrees, and I wouldn’t want to be attacked on the street. But I was glad to see that so much attention was being paid to it, because that is my goal: to create awareness. Last year went like a train and that was very overwhelming. It was a very nice journey to put it like that, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The year started with an interview and ended with a TEDx-talk. I couldn’t have wished for anything nicer and better for myself and the account.”

How wonderful! So, what’s the biggest milestone you’ve achieved in the years you’ve been active?

“Holding the TEDx. I’ve known TED Talks for a long time, but I didn’t know that TEDx existed, nor that it existed in Amsterdam. It definitely was a highlight when I was asked to participate. Especially because it was TEDxAmsterdamWomen, I really thought ‘it matters’. It’s such a big title! Winning the ‘Amsterdammertje van het Jaar’ was also very nice”.

You were actually supposed to hold an event on April 19th at the NDSM-wharf, but unfortunately, this cannot take place due to the circumstances. What did you plan to do during this event?

“Through a call on the account itself, I would invite people to this event at the NDSM-wharf. The NN Group donated 10 boxes with a total of 640 Crayola crayons as I could not get a sponsorship with Crayola. This is enough chalk for a whole year and that could be used during the event. People may chalk whatever they want. These can be experiences or positive messages. Besides that, they get a goodie bag and can meet us in person. It would like a meeting where they do the work that we normally do. So, we could introduce them to it and create some kind of support network.”

That sounds like a very nice event and I hope it will take place in the near future! Are you now working on an alternative in view of the international week against street harassment?

“Someone from the New York team made a video with all kinds of entries from us. That’s something we’re going to launch. Now we’re also working on a template for Instagram where people can tag each other. We don’t really have plans yet, but this is the basis for now. Physically the event can’t take place but online it can. Because of the coronavirus, we can’t go outside, but online activism is growing even more and in such a positive way. I’m very happy about that!”

 Finally: how do you see the future of Catcalls of Amsterdam?

“I’ve been asked that question so many times and I find it hard to answer! Over time that vision changes as well. I hope that someday there will be a time when it will no longer be necessary. But the creators of all the other accounts and I know this won’t stop right away. I will keep doing what I do for as long as I can and maybe it will expand to something greater, but I don’t know yet. First, I would like to get together with all the other people behind the accounts. I hope we can achieve the goal of educating and informing. I’m also in favour of a law that forbids street harassment, but this is something you can’t easily control. I think that if there is a punishment it should be accompanied by education. By all means, we’re going to continue with the Chalk Back Movement!”

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