Sexual Violence in Brussels: two witness accounts shake nightlife

After two courageous women speak out on sexual violence in Brussels, it has become increasingly clear that the incidents surrounding a bartender who allegedly drugged and raped women are not isolated incidents. How safe do women still feel in the Belgian capital?

Already from outside the shouting and cheering of a crowd drown out the night. It is Tuesday evening, shortly before midnight. In the bar “Mezzo” in Brussels city centre, the DJ has put on the party hit “Party rock anthem”. Around forty young women and men move to the beat, swinging their upper bodies and arms simultaneously to the beat. Four disco spotlights circle over the dance floor. The spotlights cast orange and blue shadows on their clothes. “Paaartyyy rockers in the hooouse toooonight,” they bawl as their mouths form grins. “Everybody just have a good time”. Most of them don’t have drinks in their hands. Instead, there are three half-full cocktail glasses on a brown bar table, beer bottles and pint glasses on the other tables.

Julie is also on the dance floor. “I used to leave my glasses on the table when I partied and drink out of them later. Now I don’t do that anymore,” the 23-year-old student says.

Two weeks ago, the testimonies of two women changed the nightlife in Brussels for many women. A barkeeper that worked at the bars “Waff” and “El Café” is alleged to have drugged and then raped at least two women in the Brussels suburb of Ixelles. Subsequently, more than a dozen other women have reported similar incidents in both bars. The bartender has been dismissed and the public prosecutor’s office is investigating.

The incidents have changed Julie’s behaviour: “I’m more aware of it now, I look around, I drink less to be sure that I’m not drunk when I go home.” She says that she went to “Waff” one day before the barkeeper is alleged to have drugged and raped the women. “I liked the bar, but I won’t go in both of them again because of what happened. I’m too afraid.”

“It was the worst day of my life”

On the Instagram account “Balance ton bar” alone, there are now more than 50 anonymous posts from women reporting similar incidents. Some of them were lucky that friends took care of the drugged women. Others report sexual violence: “When I regained consciousness, I realised I was only wearing a T-shirt and no panties. There was an empty condom wrapper on the floor and the door of my flat was open. It was the worst day of my life,” says one of them. The entries refer to bar visits all over Brussels.

Since summer, after the lockdown ended, there has been a 75 percent increase in the number of people asking for help from the Brussels Centre for the Treatment of Sexual Violence (CPVS). Earlier this year, around 40 people attended the centre every month. This figure has now increased to 70 per month, according to the cabinet of Sarah Schlitz, Secretary of State for Gender Equality. “This increase is due to the deconfinement, people going out again without restrictive hours, the start of the new academic year, but also the liberation of women’s voices,” Schlitz’s spokesperson Oliviero Aseglio told The Brussels Times.

“Waff” and “El Café” in the Brussels suburb of Ixelles are only ten minutes away from the university, in the middle of the student nightlife district. There is a bus stop in front of “El Café”, a chip shop two houses away and the Ixelles cemetery opposite. Especially between Wednesday and Sunday, students have parties at “El Café”, which is open until four o’clock every day.

Juliette (20) studies at the University of Ixelles. She also went there with her friends to party. “Now we don’t go to ‘El Café’ and ‘Waff’ anymore because of what happened,” Juliette says. The incidents frighten her: “I don’t feel safe anymore if I go out.”

“Stay off my body”

Like sand by the sea, the glittering glasses fill the black shelf of the bar counter of “El Café”. Behind, a woman and a man, both under 35, mix a Mojito and a Cuba Libre to Georg Michael’s voice “Wake me up before you go go”. The signs with “No = no”, “El café = rapist” and “Stay off my body” have disappeared.

Two testimonies became more than 50, 50 women became more than a thousand voices at a large demonstration against sexual violence – and the fact that “Waff” and “El Café” are still open. The mayor Ixelles’ Mayor Christos Doulkeridis said that he’d like to close the two bars. But according to his cabinet member, Aline Lacroix, the mayor does not yet have a legal basis to close the cafes because the investigation is ongoing.

The top level of “El Café’s” bar shelf stretches past the surveillance camera to the next room, where candles with Jesus on the cross replace the mingle-mangle of white glasses and ivy winds around the shelf.  Below, a group of six women enjoy fine Mexican cuisine around tacos and tortillas. About a dozen guests are in “El Café” on this quiet Monday evening around 9 pm. The black bar stools and the wooden tables opposite the bar are deserted.

“The neighbourhood is damaged. They feel they have fewer clients,” a long-time employee of one of the bars in Ixelles says. He wishes to remain anonymous. But he too believes that sexual harassment and violence is a problem in nightlife all over Brussels: “Girls used to feel safe in Brussels but now not any more”, he says.

The operators of “El Café” announced their own initiatives to create a safe environment as soon as possible. These include glass protection devices, cameras, drug tests and staff training.  Whether this is enough to win back the trust of many frightened women remains to be seen.