Slowly, Belgium Reckons with #MeToo

Belgium's de facto position at the 'heart of Europe' means that there are always two parallel conversations taking place (three or four if you divide the country further into its regions.) But the #MeToo movement has swept up everyone. Politico, the newspaper I work for, uncovered the anonymous testimony of dozens of men and women who were harassed in the European Parliament, ranging from rape to job offers in exchange for sex. An MEP personally shared with me that he likes ogling at the women in Parliament when his wife is away, and invited me to do the same. Like elsewhere, the EU has struggled to reform its harassment guidelines, taking a year in some cases to process a sexual harassment complaint. Nine out of ten women in Brussels say they have been harassed in some form according to a survey commissioned by the local Equal Opportunities Minister. Nine out of ten.

The rest of Belgium has also struggled with the idea that men in positions of power abuse co-workers and subordinates. The case of Bart de Pauw, a Flemish actor, was accused of inappropriate behavior by a dozen women before he was removed from his show on local broadcaster VRT. His case prompted controversy about what constitutes sexual harassment, and what kind of punishment it deserves. Many in Belgium agreed with an open letter written by 100 French women warning that the #MeToo movement was looking like "puritanism" and a "witch-hunt". In Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood, local activists translated work done by students from the University of Kansas, putting up a display of the clothes women were wearing when they were assaulted. A feminist collective called Period will double down on offering workshops for women on consent, and talking about what constitutes sexual harassment.

None of this is of course new. Rape and sexual harassment are not new, and neither are women's efforts to fight it. Office sexual harassment complaints across the country have been piling up since offices have been open. Will #MeToo put a stop to this phenomenon? Unlikely. But it has forced a public conversation out of the shadows, where harassment thrives. And it's prompted some messy questions: Does consent have to be 'enthusiastic'? Verbal? Does our notion of consent change when there is a power imbalance in a relationship? Do men or women have to go through with a sexual encounter when first they wanted it but thought against it halfway through? Is there a scale of harassment, with certain behaviors more serious than others? How do we go about marking that scale? What should punishment be? Is it enough for men in power to simply be fired from their jobs or is legal action necessary or warranted?

The questions about how society will view sexual harassment is part of the immediate redress so many women deserve, especially now when society is attentive to their plight. But it is only a part. We can also do something women have asking for years and we, as a society, have somehow been unable to do: believing them.

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