In Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, feminists are campaigning to name more streets after women

A poster showing Simone Veil in Paris. Image: Selma Franssen.

In Paris this summer, you can’t miss Simone Veil. The city is filled with ‘Merci Simone’ posters, and recently, the ‘Europe’ metro stop has been renamed in her honour.

Meanwhile, at the entrance of the Panthéon, signs chronicling her life story have appeared. They tell of how she was deported to Auschwitz when she was 16, where she lost her parents and brother; how she survived and started an impressive career as a magistrate, minister, first female president of the European Parliament and an academic; and how in 1975, as minister of health, she succeeded – against the will of her own political camp – in decriminalising abortion in 1975.

Where are the women in Paris?

On 1 July, Veil’s accomplishments saw her Veil added to the list of those buried in the Panthéon, a monument in the Latin Quarter. She is an exception. The Panthéon was originally a church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève – but now it’s mainly a mausoleum for famous French men.

As Céline Piques, spokesperson for the group Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be a Feminist), explains: “72 men are buried there, but only four famous women were admitted on the basis of their own merits.”

The other three are scientist Marie Curie, and two members of the French resistance, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion. The only other woman buried in the Panthéon is Sophie Berthelot – who shares a grave with her husband, the chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot. “I am very happy that Simone Veil joins their ranks,” Piques adds. “There may be a plaque saying ‘grands hommes’ above the entrance of the Panthéon, but women also built France.”

Osez le Féminisme is committed to increasing the visibility of women in the Parisian streets. Only 2.6 per cent of street names in Paris are named after a woman, and these are often the wife or daughter of a well-known man. In all, 31 per cent of all streets are named after men.


A few years ago, Osez le Féminisme plastered 60 street signs on Paris’s Île de la Cité with the names of famous women, such as Pont Josephine Baker, Boulevard Emilie du Châtelet and Quai de Nina Simone. “Names of landmarks honor the contributions that people made to science, art and politics,” Piques says. “And there are hardly any landmarks named after women. This not only means a part of history is forgotten, it also influences the image we have of what women can achieve in life.

“That is why we want to rename existing streets that are not named after a person, in order to equalise the balance between men and women. If we have to wait for the construction of new streets, it will take years. “

In recent weeks, the organisation has been campaigning to name two new metro stations after women. Just four of the 303 metro stops on Paris’ sixteen lines were already named after female figures; and there is a Rosa Parks station on the RER rail network in northern Paris, named after the American civil rights activist.

But because the metro network is being expanded, two new stops will be added. Osez le Féminisme called its supporters to vote for women in an online election which presented six possible names, three men and three women. The campaign was successful: the stations will be named after the famous singer Barbara and Lucie Aubrac, a resistance fighter who died in 2007. “This means that a total of six metro stations will be named after women,” Piques says. “It’s a start.”

A first for Brussels

The city of Brussels also turned to online crowdsourcing when selecting new street names in recent weeks. Some 28 streets are being added to the city – and residents from all over Belgium could submit proposals that had a link with Belgian history. It was the first time that Brussels had given its citizens the opportunity to propose street names.

Vesna Jusup, who works for the European Greens in Brussels and is an expert on gender and urban planning, says only four out of 54 Brussels metro stations refer to a woman. “Those four consist of two queens, a princess and a saint. As far as street names are concerned, it’s not much better: about 3 per cent are named after a woman, 22 per cent after a man.”

Several organisations have called for voters to nominate women for the new street names. The city itself asked for ‘poetry’ and that’s what they got: Brussels will soon have streets named ‘Ceci n’est pas une rue’ and ‘Frietgang’ (“Fries passage”). But there will also be a Chantal Akermanstraat and Isala Van Dieststraat, named after the famous Brussels-born film director and the first Belgian female doctor and feminist respectively.

Last month, Brussels MP Fatouma Sidibé (DéFi) filed a draft resolution to name more streets in Brussels for women, too.

Beyoncé Boulevard in Amsterdam?

In recent weeks, the Dutch activist group De Bovengrondse followed suit in several cities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam. Stickers with alternative street names were pasted below the original signs, to indicate what could have been. De Dam in Amsterdam was renamed Dame (“Lady”); Rokin became Beyoncé Boulevard. Only 12 per cent of Dutch streets are named after women, according to the activists – and so they published a list of 12 women who should be given their own street as soon as possible.

Research by De Correspondent shows that 88 per cent of the streets in Amsterdam which are named after a person refer to a man; and that names from the historic black presence in Amsterdam are notably by their absence. Meanwhile, research by political party D66 Rotterdam recently showed that, in Rotterdam, 92 per cent of the street names named after people refer to white men. This “shows a very one-sided picture of Rotterdam’s history,” says council member Nadia Arsieni.  “This is no longer acceptable in a diverse Rotterdam.” She therefore submitted a proposal to change the guidelines for the naming of streets in Rotterdam.

A symbolic discussion?

Merci Simone. Image: Selma Franssen.

Not everyone agrees more people should be able to recognise themselves in street names, however. In the Dutch province of Flevoland, the local party Hart voor Urk filed a motion calling for more representation of white people through street signs, including controversial historical figures such as the admiral Michiel de Ruyter and Dutch East India Company officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen. The motion was unanimously adopted by the Urk city council. The actions of Osez le Féminisme in Paris and De Bovengrondse in Amsterdam weren’t free from criticism, either. Some critics suggested that street harassment is a much more pressing problem for women in public space.

Vesna Jusup agrees that the naming of landmarks does not directly yield more rights for women. But “it does create more awareness: if we know that people of colour and women historically contributed to our communities  and still do, this will advance their image as people we need to protect rather than attack.

“It also corrects the way in which women’s performance have been systematically wiped out or assigned to men over the centuries. History was not dominated by men, written history was dominated by men. And that includes street signs.”

Céline Piques points out that her organisation is active on both fronts. “A survey among women in Paris indicated that all women experience street intimidation. We also try to tackle this, with actions like ‘Take back the metro’, or by walking around town with women and identifying places where they feel unsafe.”


The streets don’t belong to everyone

Street harassment and lack of recognition of women in the public space are connected: both make women’s experience of public space differ from men’s. Throughout history, women have been more tied to the home – through laws, social codes, the threat of sexual violence or impractical clothing. To some extent, they still are. Prevalence of street intimidation shows that walking alone as a women is all too often interpreted as a sexual invitation. Girls and women are still told that they should not walk the streets alone.

But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Wanderlust, in which she investigates the history of walking, solo walking has often led to encounters and experiences that have inspired the work of writers, artists and political thinkers. “It is impossible to know what would have become of many of the great male minds had they been unable to move at will through the world. Picture Aristotle confined to the house, John Muir in full skirts,” she writes.

Change may be slow, but these actions and campaigns matter, as does counteracting street harassment. Leaving the merits of women unrecognised in public space confirms the idea that women are less important than men and can be treated as such.

And those who feel less safe and free in public space have fewer opportunities to think, to daydream, to see, to meet and to accomplish. In short: fewer chances to leave an impression on history – which in turn can lead to being honored with a street name sign.

Selma Franssen is a Dutch freelance journalist, based in Brussels.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.