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.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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