When Sofie Peeters moved to Brussels for a film degree, she found herself confronted with a depressing problem almost every time she left her front door. Walking around her local neighbourhood, the mixed, working-class district of Anneessens, at any time of day she would be greeted with cat-calls, wolf-whistles and jeers of "slag" and "how much do you cost?"
Sick of wondering whether it was her fault for wearing particular clothes, she made her end of year film on the topic, armed with a hidden camera to record the street harassment.
Female acquaintances admitted the problem was so bad they never went out in a skirt, avoided the metro, never made eye contact with men, avoid walking certain streets, never wore shorts and in one case, only ever left their house by bike.
The student film, Femme de la Rue, a shocking account of everyday sexist insults in the street, is now at the centre of a political and social storm in Belgium and across its borders. After it was shown on TV and at a screening last week it has become an internet success and triggered a public debate.
Belgian politicians say they were already planning legislation to crack down on sexist insults and harassment, promising fines for offenders. French feminist groups seized on the film to highlight similar problems in France and break the taboo surrounding street harassment. In turn, Peeters has denied charges of racism as the film shows mainly jeers by men of immigrant north African origin.
In the film, she walks round her neighbourhood wearing jeans and a cardigan and then a knee-length summer dress and flat boots. A hidden camera shows that both times, men – from youths to groups of older men on cafe terraces – leer, cat-call and proposition her. She is called "whore", "slut", "bitch" and told that she looks up for sex. One man follows her saying she should come to his house or a hotel room. She says she gets this kind of comment eight to 10 times a day.
"The first question women ask is: 'Is it me? Is it something I have done, is it my clothes?' But when I made this film I saw it wasn't just me, lots of women have this problem," Peeters told Belgian TV.
One woman in the film admits it's "sad" but she always changes out of a skirt even to go round the corner. Others avoid public transport.
Peeters talks to a crowd of local young men of north African origin about how to stop the insults. They suggest she says she is married. Peeters said: "I was told, 'Come out with a man, your boyfriend and we'll leave you alone.' But that's ridiculous. Women have the right to walk where they want."
She told the paper La Capitale that most harassment was by men with Maghreb roots but the film was more about the social status of the neighbourhood than ethnicity.
In France, where a new sexual harassment law has just been voted in amid soul-searching over sexism after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn legal cases, the Belgian film has hit a raw nerve. It comes just after Cecile Duflot, the housing minister, wore a long-sleeved, modest floral dress in Parliament and was whistled and jeered at by male rightwing parliamentarians.
"If she wore that dress it was to be looked at and not to be listened to," said the UMP's Patrick Balkany, a close friend of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Peeters' film also triggered a Twitter offensive in France after one male tweeter said he had never seen anyone complain of similar street harassment so the Brussels story must be an isolated case. Under the hastag #harcelementderue (street harassment) testimony flooded Twitter by women proving him wrong, followed by #harcelementdemetro about harassment on the underground.
The French feminist group Osez Le Feminisme, which praised the film for triggering debate on the issue, linked to its comic film-clip on role-reversal of women jeering men in the street.
French feminists said the film showed how street harassment was a universal issue for women.
In May, a poll found four in 10 young women had been sexually harassed in London over the past year. – © Guardian News and Media 2012