Urban design magazine

Public spaces

Gender in the city: interview with Édith Maruéjouls

Image of crowd - gendered spaces
Flickr / Byronv2

What links can we establish between urbanism and feminism? What problems do women face today in cities created by and for men? Édith Maruéjouls, geographer, scientist and feminist specialising in questions relating to diversity, equality and gender explores the topic of inequality, particularly in leisure spaces for young people, with us at the Urban Design Observatory.

Edith Maruéjouls, you’ve published a thesis entitled Diversity, equality and gender in leisure spaces for young people. What interested you to this subject?

Firstly, a quick correction, my thesis hasn’t actually been published yet – I’ll be presenting it September.

I wanted to show the impact the gendered division of leisure activities has on the way men and women go on to use the city as adults. From adolescence, we identify spaces as specifically masculine or feminine (and rarely mixed). We teach boys to take over public spaces, whilst girls are “relegated” to private spaces and many therefore feel disconnected from public spaces.

I came to this subject for both personal and professional reasons. After completing a degree in sociology in 1997, I worked as a consultant for urban spaces and particularly youth policies in cities. I soon noticed the inequalities in the way girls and boys were treated. For example, when we talk about preventing delinquency in working class areas, project inevitably benefit boys more. When we talk about youth, we’re above all addressing boys. I worked on this subject for 10 years before being contacted by a university to help create a “Diversity, Equality, Gender” network, made up of on-the-ground professionals, university professors, local institutions and feminist associations, to study inequalities in leisure activities. The Regional Council of Aquitaine then decided to sponsor a thesis on public facilities from a gender perspective, which they asked me to lead. I was delighted as I needed to take a step back from my on-the-ground experience, as well as create a theoretical argument and a scientific approach.

What kind of relationship do you have with Gender Studies, which has been flourishing in France for several decades? How innovative is the idea of feminist urban planning?

The question of gender is posed in every domain from the world of work to the family, couple, parenting, citizenship and leisure. It plays a role in creating identity in every social class and in relation to every human problem.

The subtitle of my thesis is “the relevance of a feminist paradigm”. When discussing feminism we often (legitimately) hear about the world of work, an area which is covered by the media and numerous studies. Questions of violence and domination are also give great importance. However, there are very few studies on leisure activities, which is very significant topic especially during adolescence when we go from “structured” leisure imposed by school to “personal” leisure where the element of choice is more important. It is a moment when we leave “supervised” spaces that are “supervised” and we start to create our personal and sexual identity.

In sport we find many caricatures of gender inequality. Under of pretext of boosting performance, we maintain non-diversity and inequalities in leisure activities. Having girls and boys play separately because “unequal performance” denies the differences that exist within a gender – not all boys are as competent or resistant. What’s more, it prevents other kinds of diversity such as young/old, able-bodied/handicapped or fast/slow.

Sports facilities - gendered spaces

Flickr / N.Marty

The feminist paradigm highlights the importance of diversity in sharing. Making girls and boys play and live together is a fair, democratic and equal project for society.

Men represent two thirds of the visitors using public leisure facilities. This means that the facilities address the needs of twice as many men as women.

One of the biggest problems faced by Gender Studies in France is that society is unable to recognise the importance of feminism in science. When feminist thinking in science allows us to deconstruct an androcentric approach and take into account social gender relations through tools like gender budgeting.

There have always been male and female feminist urban designers who have raised the question of gender in urban planning, particularly at a European level, for example the German scientists who organised conferences on the subject over 30 years ago.

This is not a new question, although the approach may be more innovative or up-to-date.

How can we avoid reinforcing clichés that create a “feminised” approach to the city?

The real question is why we are still at this point today in a full democracy that gave women equal rights over 40 years ago. People change and so do our cities. Society today is very different and we need to use this as our base.

The notion of diversity has been deformed in France. We’ve added lots of confusion to terms like diversity, equality and gender. Diversity is a “countable” relationship of 2/3 to 1/3. A mix of at least 2/3 of one gender for 1/3 of the other is necessary for sharing. So, diversity is a perquisite, but it’s not enough. Equality derives from fours concepts. Equal rights (acquired in France from 2014), equal redistribution (social justice), equal access (the same choices) and equal value (no hierarchy). The challenge is to attain real equality and equal treatment between men and women by working on the three level of equality that haven’t yet been reached.

To return to the example of sport, the facilities are not a problem in themselves, but rather the message they produce and transmit.

Male presence is institutionalised by constructing facilities that are symbolically masculine and largely used by men and boys. By doing this we instate an unequal value (more masculine facilities), an unequal redistribution (public funding used for largely male activities) and unequal access (girls and women have less facilities). The challenge is knowing how to appropriate public spaces fairly, perhaps by making facilities more neutral or dedicating less exterior spaces to gender stereotyped activities. When creating bowling areas, children playgrounds, skate parks, city stadiums etc. we reinforce the gendered nature of spaces.

Image of sports game - gendered spaces

Crowds at Park Jarry in 1970. Flickr / Montréal Archives

The priority is to give women the same right to express themselves as men. The gender system is underpinned by the construction of two social gender groups which adhere to certain stereotypes and create a hierarchy. I believe we need to rethink this system to create an egalitarian way to govern supported by society projects. Working on a real political project that combines diversity and equality in order to deconstruct the gender system.

Some claim that it is up to women to take possession of facilities considered to be reserved for men in order to appropriate them. How would you react to this?

We need to be where people don’t expect, where no one asks us to be. This is not about violence or confrontations, but about justice. We are there because we have the right to be there. We are not fighting for freedom, but equality.

It always comes back to the question of individual consent. We must not forget that a collection individual consent is not the same as collective consent. In my works, I deliberately chose to question political and social action, and not just reduce the question of inequality to individual choices. As an individual, I make choices and I have the right to be equal to men in all spaces. But, this is not just about individual awareness. We need to remember that insecurity is real and “taking possession of infrastructures” can be risky. Objectively, the street is no more dangerous than the home, yet the majority of women never feel truly safe. Although different modes of transport are implemented in cities, particularly at night, women who are harassed or treated violently in the street often criticise the inaction of others, both men and women. Collective consent is sometimes expressed as a form of resignation. Individual responsibility and action are not enough. For women and men to share spaces, they need to act together.

We need to neutralise spaces by no longer defining or legitimising them as feminine or masculine. I think that invading public spaces to introduce diversity is a completely legitimate movement.

Image of street - gendered spaces

Flickr / gatogato

Image of sports game - gendered spaces

Crowds at Park Jarry in 1970. Flickr / Montréal Archives

Image of street - gendered spaces

Flickr / gatogato

Is creating diverse spaces enough to convince women to use facilities spontaneously whilst changing stereotypes and mentalities?

Today, the difficulty is that there is no feminist or alternative culture to free us from the dominant heterosexual, stereotyped and hierarchical norm.

Although laws are equal, a higher unspoken gender norm imposes itself and defines our daily lives from dress codes (no very short skirts for women, no dresses for men etc.) to behaviour (no crying, virility, femininity, body conformity) and identity (what it means to be a girl or a boy).

We can’t create diversity simply by writing up a document. In France, there are no forbidden places, we can’t legally prevent a women from going into a bar at 1am.  Yet, the question of symbolic legitimacy is very important. Why, in our modern society, can’t women be alone in the street late at night the same way men can? We need to analyse our patriarchal history and heritage in order to find answers.

According to a feminist approach, everything that is private is also political and public.

For me, there is no alternative to diversity, but we need to propose an active diversity based on real equality between men and women.

The role and place for women is still conditioned by men’s regard. Do you think that there is an “urban” solution to change and free women from this regard?

I think we also need to ask men this question. Do they want to constantly want to be considered as potential aggressors? The real issue is freeing men so that they can position themselves differently. The question of the male regard requires change that would deconstruct the today’s dominant way of thinking. Once again, it is about sharing – sharing objectives, tools, methodologies and impacts.

Every urban planner and every man and women involved to public policies needs to be sensitive to the problem of equality.

More and more urban experiments and projects integrate the notion of equality. We should share our experiences and open up more debates.

I think that asking questions from a gender perspective provides us all with meaning, so we can understand what equality and living together mean. It allows each and every one of us to free ourselves and move forwards in all areas.

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