CITIES, policy & design

There is this thing called 'right to the city'; women have it too.

1. TRUE STORY. LAST SUNDAY, at about 6am, four of us girls were returning home from a club, here in Berlin, tired and starving, having danced all night celebrating the birthday of one of us. On the corner of Revaler and Warschauer Straße, at a döner kebab shop, we got something to eat and sat outside, at a table. A (very nice) English man asked for some filters in his best German, and got them, and said thank you, and goodbye; we were very sad that he left so quickly. But he left because another man, German, approached us from the other end of the table, and, once the Englishman was gone, plonked himself at our table and started asking us detailed, personal questions, one at a time. We were tired, chewing in silence, not even talking among us, and this man’s insistent question-asking was not merely annoying, but excruciating. About 10 minutes into a conversation which consisted mainly of very polite silence on our side, it occurred to me that this man was a parasite on female politeness, nothing more: one of those men who simply exploit most women’s need not to be confrontational. So I asked:

“Sorry, would you like to go somewhere else? We don’t feel like talking to you.”

Except that he then said: “No.”

I repeated: “We would really like you to leave.”

He stayed. The German girls said it again, this time not in convoluted Australian phrasing, but using the typical German, simple syntax: “Go away. Nobody wants to talk to you.”

He shrugged and cackled and launched into a monologue about how some of us were mean, others neurotic, and some again had problems.

The third girl tried the Croatian approach, and insinuated he had mother issues and wouldn’t get far with women. To no avail. The man must have spent another 15-20 minutes at our table, talking to us while receiving nothing but the phrases above, repeated with firm hostility. “Are you going to leave?” “We’re not interested in talking to you.” “Leave us alone, please.” In the end, it was us who left, having finished our food.

This incident left me thinking because this doesn’t normally happen to me. I usually go out with male friends – and men like the one above never, ever approach mixed groups of people. I am never approached by bores when I’m alone, probably because I look vaguely lesbian-ish. And so I was simply not accustomed to seeing a man behave, consciously, like an arsehole, ignoring or dismissing the opinions that four women had over the matter. It’s not that we weren’t articulating our no well enough, or that he wasn’t able to read our subtle, feminine signs: he simply didn’t care. He was giving us no say on the matter. I rode my bike home with the creepy afterthought that this man was rapist material: he was the type of guy for whom it simply didn’t matter whether a woman agreed with his plan or not; he needed to have the upper hand. And the most awful detail was that my three friends, all beautiful (non-lesbian-looking) young women, seemed somewhat accustomed to this kind of behaviour.

2. MY FIRST TASTE OF THE UNDERSTANDING OF CIVIL LIBERTIES IN AUSTRALIA was getting yelled at by two female friends the day after we stayed out on Lygon St, Carlton, drinking until about 3am. It transpired that I walked home afterwards, to North Melbourne through the Melbourne University campus. They would not take for an answer that there is never anyone on the campus, that the walk takes mere 20 minutes, that I did it every night, that it was safe, that it was my right to walk, that I had walked through cities alone at night my entire life, that nothing had ever happened, that nobody should expect anything to happen, and so on. They were absolutely furious with me, and tried to make me promise not to ever do it again. I refused. We ended our coffee without having made peace. This was the first time in my life, at 23 or so, that I encountered the idea of being better safe than sorry, and yes one has rights, but the world is a dangerous place and let’s pre-emptively curtail our demands for equitable treatment.

During that time, I was becoming very interested in the ways Australians have reduced their children’s independent mobility (children’s right to move freely through space, unsupervised) to the barest minimum. Later that year, I wrote an essay comparing the curtailment of children’s right to using public space in contemporary Australia, and the justifications thereof, to the 19th-century discourse on women’s right to free movement. In both cases, the better safe than sorry logic was applied, and the streets depicted as teeming with frightful, preying men, only waiting for an unsupervised woman or child to pass by to attack and rape, abduct, murder, and so on. The single strolling woman or child, the discourse went, would simply be too much of a temptation. Yes, in a perfect world, but unfortunately these predators could not be trusted. Better just stay at home your whole life. Never walk out unsupervised. Easier that way. I won an award, and a hefty amount of money, for that essay, which led me into a career in urbanist research.

3. I WAS IN ISTANBUL IN JULY 2011. It was around 40 degrees, dry, smoggy, unbearably hot. Around the old city, women in full cover: not merely the hijab, but sweaters, coats. I was wearing tiny shorts and a T-shirt and constantly at a danger of fainting from the heat. I mentioned this to my beautiful friend Yeşim, girl of my age, a freshly graduated actress, noting that I thought they must have been strong women: one needed stamina to survive such an outing in traditional clothing. Yeşim got furious with me. “That is not traditional clothing! You go to villages in Turkey, nobody wears a headscarf! That’s Islamist stuff coming from the Middle East, and it’s coming through the cities, and through politics! Turkey is supposed to be a secular country, and now it’s becoming expected that a woman, when she turns 30, will put a scarf on her head!” I remember her very clearly: Yeşim, sitting in front of me in a short red dress, absolutely beautiful, 26 years old and probably feeling the pressure building up. After that, and after this incident, I realised that it is possible to be tolerant, open and interested in other cultures, and still call sexist oppression for what it is when you see it.

4. BERLIN SLUTWALK 2012, HELD A FEW WEEKS AGO, CREATED A CONTROVERSY, because three women painted their bodies black, clearly black-bodying themselves into a chador/burka/full-body Islamist cover. This drew critiques of racism and anti-Islamism. A friend commented on it during the walk. I should point out here that banning headscarves is still a current affair in Europe. However, I pointed out that I don’t think there is any significant difference between a country in which an unveiled woman may be stoned without repercussions, and a country in which a woman in a mini-skirt may be raped without repercussions. However, I don’t feel threatened by any woman with a headscarf (and I do feel immensely more threatened by any state that legislates on what a woman must or may not wear). What women wear should not be a legal question. How else could I think of myself as Yeşim’s friend?

5. THEN A MAN I KNOW CRITICISED SLUTWALK FOR MAKING AN ISSUE OUT OF A PROBLEM CONCERNING ONLY WHITE, MIDDLE-CLASS WOMEN. I, for the record, skipped the 2011 Slutwalk in Melbourne feeling vaguely the same, and also concerned about whether it was helping the feminist cause much to parade around in slutty clothing. But only a few days later, Carolyn Whitzman, my boss, mentor and friend, wrote the following article, and shamed me deeply:

SlutWalks: Necessary and Appropriate Acts of Collective Defiance
by Carolyn Whitzman on Sunday, 12 June 2011 at 07:35 ·

For a march which attracted a few hundred women in Melbourne on May 28, SlutWalk has garnered a lot of attention in The Age, most of it negative. For those who haven’t heard of it yet, the original SlutWalk in Toronto, Canada, was a reaction to a remark by a police officer in a public meeting that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. The resultant protest attracted 3000 Canadian women in freezing January weather, and has led to copycat marches around the world, including Melbourne and Sydney. In yesterday’s Sunday Age (June 11), Tracey Clark-Flory was concerned the walk gave people “mixed messages”, given that the majority of sexual violence is within relationships and in the private space of homes. Michelle Griffin quoted anti-pornography professor Gail Dines (May 13) saying that the walk reinforced negative stereotypes. Julie Szego (May 28) went further, saying that the problem of negative messages about women’s responsibility for violence committed against them in western countries was largely solved, and Jim Schembri (June 10) said that the “hapless” police officer whose remarks ignited this movement “said a very sensible thing in a not very sensible way”.

To all of them I say: “bullshit”.

A survey of 1500 female students by the National Union of Students, released this weekend, found that 17% of students reported having been raped in university and a further 12% reported attempted rape. Two in three students said they had had an “unwanted sexual experience”, and 86% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in the form of verbal abuse. Only 3% had reported these experiences to university authorities and only 2% to the police. ( Judy Szego, sexual assault, particularly of young women, is still endemic in Australia, and the institutional response is still inadequate.

There are surprisingly few up to date statistics on street harassment and assault of Australian women and girls – by which I mean staring, verbal abuse, groping, and stalking, as well as sexual assault. A study of 12,000 women in Canada in 2000 found that 80% of women said they had been harassed on the street and that it had had a large and detrimental effect on their safety (

I am an investigator in an international project called “Gender Inclusive Cities”, which is funded by the UN Trust Fund to Eliminate Violence Against Women. In four cities on four continents (Delhi, India; Rosario, Argentina; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) we conducted street surveys of over 1000 women and girls. In all of these cities, a majority of women reported endemic sexual harassment in public space during the day as well as after dark, particularly on public transport and in the street. This led, in all of these four very different cities, to avoidance of certain educational and employment opportunities, feeling unable to go places alone, stress and self-blame ( Almost none of these experiences had been reported to authorities. Holly Kearl, author of the 2011 book “Stop Street Harassment” has also found similar responses amongst US women (

So sorry, Tracey Clark-Florey, the evidence tends to suggest that street harassment and assault is a global problem in its own right, as well as a part of the continuum of gender-based violence.

So what should women and men do, individually and collectively, to combat these problems? A group of researchers in Mumbai, India, interviewed both low-income and high-income women and men about street harassment and assault in their communities as part of a larger study on gender and public space. As summarized in the book “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets” (, also published this year, they found that, when it came to individual responses, women couldn’t win. If they complained to the police, their “minor” complaints were dismissed. If they responded to “eve teasing”, as verbal abuse is called in India, they were seen as encouraging further abuse. If they returned to the bus stop where they were harassed the next day, they might be seen as “asking for” more abuse. Furthermore, particularly amongst middle class women, there were concerns about “respectability”. Perhaps if they dressed more conservatively, carried a briefcase or shopping bags, they would look more “purposeful”, more like businessmen, rather than “looking for it”, “it” being treated like a prostitute. Gail Dines, these stereotypes need to be confronted head on. Prostitutes (aka “sluts”) don’t deserve abuse or rape, and neither do other women.

Collective responses, particularly those involving humour and deflating stereotypes, has been an international movement responding to an international problem. That is why, in India, the Blank Noise Collective regularly organizes groups of women to take over intersections, each woman holding a letter that jointly spells out “Are you looking at me?” ( That is why, in cities and countries around the world, “Hollaback” sites are springing up amongst young women, celebrating publicly shaming harassers ( That is why each of the four “Gender Inclusive Cities” projects is led by a young woman in her 20s. That is why “SlutWalks” have been organized by young women, despite naysayers (most of whom are old enough to be parents of the organizers).

As for Jim Schembri, we have teenaged daughters who are friends. I try to encourage my daughter to wear what she feels comfortable in, to explore the city with her friends, and not to be afraid or ashamed of being female. I suspect he does the same with his lovely and confident daughter. Shilpa Phadke, one of the authors of “Why Loiter?” argues that women’s “right to the city” is not a right to the guarantee of safety, because the guarantee of safety can only be found if we didn’t ever take a risk, by entering a relationship or going anywhere or doing anything that might potentially be unsafe. Rather, our daughters need to fight, as many of their mothers and fathers did, for the right to take risks. Until we can go where they want, where we want, wearing what we want, without being blamed for violence against them, SlutWalks are necessary and appropriate acts of collective defiance (

6. Walking the Slutwalk, in Berlin in 2012, I felt the rarest thing: I was in a protest that felt meaningful to me, to now, to here, to today, addressing a relevant issue in a way that makes logical sense. This year, a rape case in Croatia got dismissed because the victim wore a short skirt. This year in Australia, a jury dismissed another rape case on the grounds that the victim could not have been disrobed of her skinny jeans without actively helping the attacker. This might feel like a minor issue to a man working with sex workers, but the majority of the so-called developed world is only now starting to seriously consider the fact that rape is not committed by mini-skirts, but by violent men. Germany is many lovely things, but not a non-patriarchal haven, and I have, after a long time in a bubble of enlightened and highly educated people, again been hearing the ‘yes, but what was she thinking…’ argument, as if rape or sexual violence is something that a person can earn, as a punishment, the same way in which there would be muggings earned for stupidity or murder explained by drunkenness.

7. THERE IS A STRONG PERFORMATIVE ASPECT TO SLUTWALK, which, in my observation, is what makes it so catchy. On the one hand, it talks openly about something that is not yet on the public agenda, something considered a bit embarrassing, something a bit women’s business. To say ‘I wore a tracksuit and still got raped’, as a Slutwalk placard said, breaks a particularly nasty code of silence, according to which everything to do with relationship or sexual violence is a bit too iffy to be talked about in public. On another level, the dress code of women is another nasty little problem of patriarchy, because there is no right choice. Dress sensibly, and you’re a human being, but not a woman, and automatically a bit weird for this falling between gender roles. Dress like a woman, and you’re attractive, but you’re also immediately not-quite-human, a sub-human.

The mini-skirt problem, or the problem of calling someone ‘slut’ (which here still happens, un-ironically), reveals a dirty, secret inconsistency of patriarchy: behave like a ‘proper’ woman, and you’re assuming a position in which you are not given full respect. There is no way to win this game. This is why wearing a mini-skirt (or glitter, or fairy wings, or whatever really) while making a deadly serious argument is a powerful performative act in its own right, and a very intelligent political theatre: it demands respect for the person and the dress. SlutWalk is, then, is not simply theatre, because it is not playing something that has happened many times before and has a script, roles, a protocol. It is performance, or live art, in the sense that it is, not just representing, it is about presence, not simply mimesis; and it is confronting in and of itself. Nobody, perhaps, should be expected to broaden the spectrum of respectable clothing on their own, by wearing frilly skirts or spandex to boardroom meetings or parliament hearings. But a group of people can do that, and, considering the circumstances, I don’t think there will be any harm in making an honest garment out of the mini-skirt (glitter, spandex leggings, etc).

8. AND THEN I WOKE UP TO THE NEWS OF A MURDERED WOMAN IN MELBOURNE, IN A NEIGHBOURHOOD WHERE I USED TO LIVE. Every one of these issues seemed to appear in the case, right down to media personalities commenting on the woman’s loose behaviour (she had a vagina and walked at the same time, it appears). Clementine Ford summarised it the best, and so eminently reasonably that I am, if just a little bit, missing Australia right now:

Rule uses the following lines (among others) to ostentatiously furrow his brow and waggle his finger at Meagher for neglecting to notice her vagina and take proper care of her safety: “Police believe the stretch of Hope St from Sydney Rd west across the railway line is Jill’s usual route home to their apartment.

“We all have our favourite routes, from habit rather than logic. But for a stranger looking around in daylight, there seems no obvious reason why a young woman would choose to walk this way home late at night … There are better spots for a young woman to be walking alone after a night out drinking with workmates, ending in Sydney Rd after starting in the city."

He doesn’t consider that perhaps Meagher – if she indeed was on this route – has probably walked it a thousand times, many of those at night. He doesn’t consider that many women AND men walk all over Brunswick and other suburbs all the time AT NIGHT and encounter nothing other than the obnoxious squeals of late night revellers. He doesn’t consider that women, trained from an early age to assume every night-time situation could carry some danger (despite the fact that the majority of attacks occur in the home by people known to them and not always at night, and that street harassment doesn’t operate in conjunction with the rise and fall of the sun) naturally develop strategies and tools in order to get themselves home safely, despite the constant bleating from people that they need to take more care and accept the reality of their own vulnerability. Nowhere does he (nor any other critic who makes it their business to blame women for being reckless because it’s easier than blaming men for attacking them) acknowledge that it is the right of all women to be able to walk safely down any street they like – but knowing that they are unable to, they make intelligent choices about where they’ll go because they are autonomous adults whose own experiences in this area supersede any kind of advice Rule might be able to give them.

Andrew Rule especially doesn’t take into account the fact that, while he’s loudly wringing his hands over the curious decision of such a beautiful young woman (these things seem very important to him) to walk herself home at night via an unconfirmed route that he doesn’t approve of, her husband and family are still dealing with the alternate trauma and hope of waiting to find out if this has all been a big misunderstanding; a horrible dream. The very last thing they need is to deal with the false veneer of concern people hide behind in order to morally chastise and scold young women for not understanding that the rules are different for them.

via victim blaming? | victim shaming | Jill Meagher.



6 thoughts on “There is this thing called 'right to the city'; women have it too.

  1. “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.”
    ― Marilyn Monroe. Wise words at the time but I think it has been proven genetically/mentally/emotionally they have always been superior – men have priors (in case you think this is a sweeping generalisation, tell me how many women make this list: and anyone who acts like a creep leaves the sub-text of self-elevated importance in their wake.

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