Every part of the society is subjected to sexist comments and there is little one can do about it. Think again: The Belgium Legislature and Judiciary will tell you otherwise. On the eve of international women’s day this year, the Belgium criminal court was convinced that the comment hurled by a driver in the capital city “she would be better off doing a job adapted to women” warranted conviction on three counts of verbal abuse: making threats and sexist remarks in public, serious violation of another person’s dignity because of her gender and contempt of a police officer and imposed a fine of 3700 Euros.
The credit for this progressive law primarily goes to Sophie Peeters, a film student who exposed three minutes of rampant incidents of sexism in Belgium through her 2014 documentary called Femme de la Rue This unexpectedly contributed to the bill condemning sexism in Belgium. The pre-existing law through its amendment took cognizance of the continuing menace and redefined sexism as a gesture or deed that is intended to express contempt of a person based on sex or reduces a person solely to a sexual dimension, and which gravely affects the dignity of that person as a result.
The Belgian legislature rightly marked the prominent yet delicate difference between sexism and sexual harassment, where the former comprises sexist jokes, innuendo, taunts, anecdotes, insults and gender-derogatory nicknames, the latter bears a sexual undertone. While many applauded this remarkable achievement, the question remains: how many of such similar cases are reported and how many succeed in securing justice? The Belgian case is rare because it is extremely challenging if not impossible to prove charges of sexism, particularly concerning verbal abuse given that not every case will have forthcoming witnesses to substantiate the allegations. Other issues such as proving intent continue to be a daunting task for prosecutors, given that sexist jokes and innuendoes can conveniently be masked as innocent comments. It is evident from the wording that it is not the mere effect the gesture or words have on the victim but it is intent of the accused that must be proved. It is nonetheless commendable that the existing sexism law has been enforced and will serve as a deterrent against sexism. The hope is that other countries will follow and endeavour to offer better protection against sexism. The fear is how many Sophies will it take to awaken the legislatures?