Cities have had inclusion high on their agendas for a while, yet how can they achieve this goal when urban spaces have been built without half of the population in mind?
The ideal of domesticity and of separating the public and private spheres became mainstream in Western societies in the 19th century; from there it went on to influence urban planning and architectural projects. Cities are built, conceived and budgeted mainly with ‘man’ as the reference point, giving men and women more or less explicit information on where and how they should live in the public space.
Examples like masculine street names, leisure activities primarily benefitting boys, gender-insensitive transport offers, gender-insensitive design, widespread street harassment show how cities are still mainly made by and for the masculine body. A majority of men still holds powerful positions with a direct influence over how cities are designed, dominating jobs such as mayors, architects and urban planners.
The philosopher Henri Lefebvre defined the “right to the city” as the right to reclaim the urban space and to participate in public and civic life to co-create the city. However, women have been absent from this space because its own design makes them feel illegitimate in it.
From going on the streets to leaving a trace
In the past, women made their presence and their issues more visible through street protests, however demonstrations have lost their transgressive power and can often generate a feeling of ineffectiveness. So, in 2019 several groups of women in French cities took up a new form of feminist activism that consists of gluing messages in public spaces.
“You leave a trace of your passage,” says Léa, a member of the Paris group. “You leave claims that can be seen afterwards by everyone, there is a before, an after, and the after still has the stigmata of when you passed, that’s what I think is the biggest difference between demonstrations or a happening; when you leave, you leave something.”
The movement, born only a few years after #metoo and counting more and more cities in and out of Europe, builds on techniques and tactics that were used through history to claim urban space and manifest visibility, e.g. graffiti. These groups of women go out at night on chosen, sometimes symbolic spots in the city to glue messages printed on white paper such as: “The street is also ours.” A relatively cheap, simple and accessible way to spread powerful messages meant to call out to general passers-by, possibly reaching out to decision makers, and create a solidarity feeling among women. And the message can go even further with the help of social media.
“When you glue, you are visible! And it’s great to see that it raises questions; even if sometimes the message doesn’t please, it’s read,” says Ninon, a member of a Brussels collages group. Although reactions have mostly been positive, members of the group have also encountered hostility, not to mention that they operate with a reasonable fear of harassment while gluing.
They still do it because gluing is a way to raise awareness on issues affecting women and to educate others. In putting people on the street in front of these matters, passers-by are constantly reminded of problems affecting women and members of the movement like Ambre (name has been changed) in Brussels hope to create some questioning and reflection.
“It’s the beginning of a revolt,” says Ambre. “It’s not violent, it pisses off those who feel accused, and if they feel accused it’s because they have things to blame themselves for.” Not only a reactionary movement to government inactions, the movement has become a social movement where women as organised groups are exposing important issues that concern them with the clear intention to weigh in on the public debate and with the hope that it will help things change.
A worldwide movement
For these women, the real rebellion is to be able to reinvent cities that were made by and for men, to allow women who have been excluded to exist, to act in the public space, to connect with each other, to make issues affecting women visible. Going out in the streets together, acting with their bodies and their hands, it transforms them at an individual level as well and helps them reclaim their right to the city.
Collages groups are appearing everywhere around the world. “I clearly feel like I’m part of a movement that’s much bigger than one would expect,” says Léa, “and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, there’s an uprising that’s been going on for a few years now.”
By gluing where women aren’t supposed to be making such impactful statements, by using urban spaces in such a way, they make the city an active participant in changing gender and social roles, as well as power relations reflected in space. Now the question is, are cities listening?
* This article was adapted from an essay published in MONU #34 on Protest Urbanism, available to order here.