The Red Light District in Brussels

Red Light District in Brussels

foreign-correspondent badge finalThis past weekend, I had the chance to spend some time in Brussels, Belgium. I thought France was multicultural, but I was especially impressed with the way Belgium integrates three different languages and cultures within one city. Even with such an environment, the nature of being a foreigner means that I will always stick out at least a little bit, no matter how hard I try.

Especially since I’ve been traveling with an entire group of Americans, it is virtually impossible for us to blend in. That was particularly clear when, while exploring on one evening out, we managed to find ourselves in Brussels’ Red Light District.

My time in Europe has been eye-opening for a number of reasons. As a woman who has traveled in the Middle East, I can appreciate the freedom that comes in public dress and behavior for women in Europe. However after exploring the Red Light District of Brussels, I found myself drawing some startling conclusions. Women are respected citizens of the world, and yet there are many places where the roles they take are greatly dictated by their environment.

In the Red Light District, myself and another girl in my group were the only women there not standing behind glass windows. We were with a group of guys, but even then there was a lot of attention directed our way. The area was quite crowded with men of many ages and races, but they all had a similar demeanor. Most dressed in dark clothing and stared with hard, scrutinizing eyes as they passed our group.

It reminded me of the attention I drew as a Western, unveiled woman while living in northern Jordan. I was very surprised because I do not associate Europe at all with that sort of attitude towards women. Not only that, this entire area was clearly aimed towards men. I have no doubt that everyone around us knew we were foreign, because no other women would be silly enough to venture through this part of town.

Obviously the Red Light District isn’t the first place that most women would choose to go, but it still surprised me to experience such a hostile environment. It showed me how critical it is to have an understanding of the perception of women in any area or country. It is important to be aware and to act accordingly, because even though I have the excuse of being a foreigner, I can still attract plenty of attention if I commit a social faux pas.

So as I continue my travels, I am left wondering: How do I prepare myself for such situations, and what can I do to break stereotypes of foreigners, especially of women? Hopefully I will find out!

About Kate Maffey

AvatarKate Maffey is a college sophomore from Pennsylvania studying Middle Eastern studies, Arabic, and French.

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