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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.