City news: Brussels – what’s in a name?

8 February 2021

Last year’s upheaval to demand racial justice across Europe struck a particular chord in Belgium, with the small country in the heart of Europe confronting its colonial past.

A key figure of this history is former king Leopold II. During his reign over the Congo as his personal domain, colonial authorities carried out large-scale atrocities, leading to condemnation on human rights grounds from contemporary figures in the early 20th century – even at the height of the scramble for Africa.

Today statues, squares and streets up and down the country still bear his name, including the Leopold II road tunnel in Brussels. But not for much longer.

After the establishment of a working group on the decolonisation of public space in November 2020, the public was invited this month to choose from a shortlist of women gathered from a consultation to re-baptise the tunnel that serves as an entry point for thousands to the Belgian capital.

The 13,000 propositions submitted in the autumn were whittled down to 15 women who are no longer living and had a positive impact on society, be it in Brussels, Belgium or the world. The candidates are:

  • Belgian resistance member Andree De Jongh
  • Film Director Chantal Akerman
  • Belgium’s first female doctor Isala Van Diest
  • Brussels-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar
  • Chemist and physicist Marie Curie
  • Civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks
  • Asylum seeker Semira Adamou
  • French minister and President of the European Parliament Simone Veil
  • Congolese politician and sociologist Sophie Kanza
  • Environmental and political campaigner Wangari Maathai
  • Belgian actor Annie Cordy
  • Queen Astrid of Belgium
  • Queen Elizabeth of Belgium
  • Politician Antoinette Spaak
  • Belgian lawyer and feminist Marie Popelin

Secretary of State for the Brussels-Capital region, Nawal Ben Hamou, says the scheme is a way of “increasing the visibility of women in the public space”.

She adds: “By choosing the Leopold II tunnel as a pilot project, we wish to test a new procedure for changing the names of main roads and public spaces.”

The tunnel, which is two and a half kilometres long and is currently undergoing renovations, carried around 65,000 vehicles a day on average in and out of Brussels in pre-pandemic times, serving as a major artery for commuters from the surrounding Flanders region.

Citizens will have until the end of February to choose a new name for the tunnel and it will be officially re-baptised when it is re-opened to the public.

But the question of female street names in Brussels is far from answered.

Manon Brulard, initiator of #EqualStreetNames, teamed up with local feminist collective Noms Peut-Être and, with the help of more than 60 volunteers, mapped all the streets in the city based on the gender of the person after which they are named.

“We found out that only 6.6% of street names belonged to women,” says Brulard.

Brulard and her partners in the project used Open Data to create the map, and more cities across the world have joined in since the start of the project last year. She says the project is important for a city’s identity.

“The names of public spaces define the identity of a city and how citizens interact with it,” Brulard says. “There are several ways to approach the inequality of street names and leverage a positive change in our society. Making the invisible visible is a powerful tool of change.”

Brulard praises the re-naming of the tunnel but adds that other institutions can also play their part, such as universities naming their buildings equally or bus and metro stations taking more names of famous women.

Currently, there is no legal framework in Brussels to change the name of public roads, and Minister for Mobility Elke Van den Brandt is working in parallel to the pilot project to change this.

Only time will tell what the new artery will be called, but the re-naming will be a step towards acknowledging women’s achievements and consigning Belgium’s most infamous king to the history books.

More information on the scheme to re-name the Leopold II tunnel can be found here.