In France's cities, public space risks becoming a women-free zone

French men playing petanque. Image: Nico97492 on Flickr, reused under creative commons.

Aubervilliers, an outer suburb in the north-east of Paris, is the sort of place that lacks the photogenic appeal that one usually associates with the capital. It’s part of a newer city, of the sort that doesn’t make it into the tourist brochures. Almost 40 per cent of its population was born outside France; 1,000 of its housing units were built on a former “quasi-slum” in the 1970s.

In other words, Aubervilliers is a place that one lives in rather than visits (at least, unless you’re an over-zealous Arsenal fans: it’s also the hometown of midfielder Abou Diaby). Though it doesn't quite have central Paris’s bijou-bijou cafés, its main streets have a selection of identikit café-bars of the sort one finds throughout France, where gentlemen start sipping cognac from roughly 11am onwards.

In April 2011, Monique, a retired teacher, was looking for one such café on her way home, where she could sit on the terrace with a coffee and enjoy the sunshine. But she felt unwelcome in every one that she passed. “I realized that every single terrace that I passed only had men there, who looked at me as if I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t bear it.”

Feeling uncomfortable entering any one of these cafés alone, Monique went home and sent a round-robin email to her friends, asking for their support. The result was the establishment of “A Place for Women”, a collective which has some fifty-odd members aged between 20 and 60.

Once a month, its members meet in a café or bar, wearing spotted scarves as a kind of collective-wide uniform, and take up a corner of the café. Monique described their first visit: “We came in two by two, snacking on the terrace, taking chair after chair until our group took up a good half of the space.”

Maguy, an author, adds: “I could see the men around us looking at us out of the corner of their eyes: youths and groups of dealers leaning against the wall. Cars stopped outside the café to look in – even the police dropped by a couple of times. But we weren’t afraid, and we became the talk of the town.”

In Aubervilliers, as in many working-class immigrant areas, these kinds of all-male spaces abound. And, while women may not be explicitly forbidden from being there, they often feel ill at ease if there are no other women present.

For Nadia, a member of the group originally from Morocco, it is an impossibility: “For a woman of my age to have a coffee surrounded only by men would be shameful.” Going into a space with an exclusively male clientele often provokes jeering or unpleasant comments: at best, women expect silent reprobation or censorious – even aggressive – looks.

Over three years later, the collective has visited more than thirty cafés in the area. Some, like the Roi du Café, now regularly receive female visitors, and display yellow stickers in their window, given to them by the group. They read: “Here, women can feel at home.”

For women elsewhere in France, however – in Marseille, Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux – there are few public spaces other than cafés or bars in which they can really feel welcome. In municipally sponsored parks or recreational spaces, ostensibly for “young people”, funding is more likely to go to activities that attract boys, such as skateboarding or football. Those that appeal to girls – dancing or gymnastics, for instance – get a relatively small slice of the pie.

The spending inequalities are often justified by a need to channel youth violence into positive activities: “youth violence” is used as code for the “problem” of teenage boys. And there’s nothing to actively prevent girls from going to these places. Nonetheless, many feel unsafe, or at least ill-at-ease, in them.

The outcome is that there are whole parks where, like the cafés of Aubervilliers, girls and women feel unwelcome. This is particularly problematic for those in lower-income brackets, who may not be able to afford going to leisure places which are not free to visit.

This trend begins with funding for youth activities, but it persists throughout all the leisure programs organized by municipal bodies: even recreational spending for the elderly goes on petanque (a form of boules), in which women are not regular participants. The people making these decisions – elected officials, municipal employees, or neighbourhood watch groups – are overwhelmingly male.

Why does this matter? A Place for Women founder Monique says  feeling unsafe in a café is simply the tip of the iceberg: French cities that are built for men and run by men are being engineered to support men. For women, this means a municipal environment in which public spending actively encourages men to take ownership of public spaces. It pushes women out – and makes them feel out-of-place in the cities they call their homes.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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