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.

 
 
 
 

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