All photos by Beulah Devaney
I am sitting in a cafe on Spui Square in Amsterdam, feeling the warmth seep back into my fingers and eavesdropping on the two photographers next to me. "I feel cold just looking at them," says one of the women, nodding at the parade of bare legs going past the window. From the waist up, the men she's referencing actually look pretty cosy in their winter jackets and woollen scarfs. From the waist down, however, they are decked out in ruffled mini-skirts, woven peplum dresses, floaty A-line skirts, and bare legs, covered in goosebumps. The second woman tuts while taking a few photos through the glass: "Their girlfriends should have told them to wear tights."
In Europe, the question of who gets to tell people what to wear has become an increasingly controversial one. During the New Year celebrations in Cologne, Germany, multiple women were robbed and sexually assaulted in the city center. As many as 1,000 men—including some migrants seeking asylum and other immigrants—had gathered around the train station, systematically surrounding and groping victims. So far, two women have come forward with allegations of rape. Cologne authorities were subsequently criticized for being slow and clumsy to react to the assaults—and for failing to cope in the aftermath.City mayor Henriette Reker drew outrage by suggesting that women adopt a "code of conduct," including a dress code, to protect themselves. "There's always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm's length," Reker explained at a press conference. "That is to say to make sure yourself you don't look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don't have a trusting relationship."Reker's victim-blaming was the catalyst for Amsterdam's mini-skirt protest. "The attacks in Cologne were misogynistic crimes and we were offended by the Mayor's comments about them," says Martijn Otten, a member of the Dutch Labour Party's Youth Board and one of the protest organizers. "We wanted to turn that kind of thinking around. It's not about what women wear and how they behave, it's about men's behavior."
Hundreds of protestors, men and women, have taken this message to heart. The square quickly fills up and a pack of photographers circle the men in mini-skirts, occasionally crouching down to get a better shot of all the bare legs. "It's about solidarity with women and privacy in public," says Eric Don, a painter and sculptor in a black leather jacket and pale pink rah-rah skirt. "Women should be able to be in public without having to tell men, 'Don't touch me.'" As the march starts, a woman links arms with Don as photographers and news crews scurry to get a better angle of Don's short skirt.
Reker's comments were also criticized by the deputy prime minister of the Netherlands, Lodewijk Asscher. "Every woman has the right to freedom and safety in our society, and after something bad happened it is not right suggest that the victim herself could have done something about it," Asscher said on his Facebook page. "The 'short skirts' argument is fortunately no longer acceptable to trivialize sexual violence."The mini-skirt protest is, undoubtedly, political in nature. The organizers are affiliated with the youth groups of various left-wing Dutch parties. But there is another issue at play: who should control the debate around sexual violence?"I am annoyed that the attention is suddenly on sexual harassment when this happens all the time," says Levien Van Zon, a male protestor whose white woollen tights have attracted envious glances during the march. "I was shocked at how much my female friends are touched without their consent in public and how often that it's ignored by society. Now the attention is on sexual harassment, but all we are hearing about is immigrants because the right wing has appropriated the discussion."
In the wake of the Cologne attacks, Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers Albers' told the press that the perpetrators were "of Arab or North African appearance." Albers has since been removed from his post, but his comments were destined to outlast his career. His description of the attackers has been seized on by right-wing lobbyists as a sign that German chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy on refugees had failed.This line of argument is not unique to Germany. In 2015, refugee centers in the Netherlands were attacked and a council was successfully petitioned by concerned parents to escort schoolchildren past local refugee camps. Right-wing politicians received a boost in popularity after the Cologne attacks, with controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders claiming, "Our women and daughters should protected… The borders must close and the Netherlands must de-Islamize." The country's prime minister, Mark Rutte, has said that the main priority for this year's Dutch EU presidency will be stemming the flow of migrants coming into Europe."I am worried that politicians like Wilders are using sexual assault as a cover to bring in anti-Islamic policies," explains Judith, one of the many women marching today. "I am regularly sexually harassed when I am out in Amsterdam but people like Wilders don't give a shit. Now [the Cologne attacks] happen and suddenly they care about women? I don't think so."
Judith goes on to point out that Wilders, like many right-wing politicians across Europe, has only ever spoken out against sexual violence "when it concerns attacks on white women by brown men." Wilders' political party, the Party for Freedom, has announced that it will hand out a legal alternative to pepper spray to women in Amsterdam next week, just in time for the first batch of European quota refugees to arrive in the Netherlands.The opportunistic reaction to the Cologne attacks has angered groups who have been working for decades to get sexual violence against women taken seriously. Some of this criticism has, understandably, also been directed at the mini-skirt protest organizers. The Facebook event had over 1,200 attendees and nearly as many comments debating the merits of the protest. Critics are worried that the protest is a knee-jerk reaction to the political wrangling that occurred after the Cologne attacks, with many people asking: Why now and what next? Sexual violence and victim blaming are ongoing problems in Europe, so how is a one-off protest going to improve matters?"There are people who've said that men wearing mini-skirts is just asking for attention," says Lyle Muns, the youth president of the Dutch Green Party. "But many women have used it to talk about their own experiences. We want to use this protest to start conversations about abuse and sexual intimidation and as a way to make people more aware of these issues." The word "awareness" is popular among the mini-skirted protesters, who seek to challenge right-wing supporters who seek to turn misogyny into a race issue—but also see the opportunity to call out rape culture and sexual harassment across Europe."We are committed to making sure that the right wing do not take over the issue," explains Otten. "But we will keep working with the Dutch political parties to keep up the pressure and raise awareness. We can't change the sexual harassment women face next week, but we can send a message of solidarity."