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Our Streets Are Not Neutral

One thing I’ve always loved about cities is the opportunity to meld into the anonymity of crowds and slip through streets. Walking for leisure is easily done in Melbourne with so many vibrant laneways and streets waiting to be trodden. In many ways, Melbourne is the perfect city to be a ‘flaneur’.

I first learnt about the concept of the ‘flaneur’ in my literary studies class. ‘Le Flaneur’ is a term that refers to a man who walks and anonymously blends into the city. Something that has been contested is whether a woman can be flaneur: a flaneuse. Thanks to past flaneuses like suffragettes and women in public life, women today have the freedom to simply ‘be’ in cities, to choose to be visible or invisible for the most part.

But despite this new freedom, women are still prevented from accessing certain spaces due to a culture that has normalised harassment from men. As Lauren Elkin writes in her novel Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London that, “From Tehran to New York, from Melbourne to Mumbai, a woman still can’t walk the city in the way a man can” [1].

The visibility of women in cities is challenged by men’s violence. The intimidating threat of violence imposes constraints upon women for simply ‘being’ in public spaces; something that white cis men eschew.

That being said, it’s important to recognise that men are more likely than women to be victims of assault in public places [2]. Once again, male violence rears it head. Out of 19,000 people who were hospitalised because of assault in 2014-15, three-quarters were men and boys [3]. While men are certainly not exempt from street harassment, women’s violation of space contains elements of power and control.

Elkin comments that, “Space is not neutral. Space is a feminist issue” [4]. The domestic realm also paints a jarring image of violence against women. On average, at least one woman is killed every week at the hands of a current or former partner. [5]

Different spaces have connotations that depend on an intersection of factors such as gender, age, race and sexuality. These experiences influence the meaning that people assign to certain spaces – what may be safe for one person, may be dangerous for another. It is pivotal to recognise the way women interact with communicated values associated with place. In June 2018, when Eurydice Dixon was murdered in Princes Park, a familiar message was reinforced for women and girls who occupy public space. That message was, ‘Make sure you have situational awareness, that you’re aware of your surroundings’ [6]. Underlying this message was another: when taking responsibility for safety, women should be wary of certain spaces because it is too dangerous. This attitude does not resolve the cause of the attacks: men’s violent behaviour against women.

According to Elkin, “Cities are made up of invisible boundaries, intangible custom gates that demarcate who goes where: certain neighbourhoods, bars and restaurants, parks, all manner of apparently public spaces are reserved for different kinds of people. We become so accustomed to this that we hardly notice the values underlying these divisions. They may be invisible, but they determine how we circulate within the city” [7].

Street harassment from men, whether it be catcalling, stalking or sexual abuse, play a role in how women map their journey in the city. To be a flaneur is to be able to wander anywhere with ease. For women, this is not a reality. According to Plan International, almost 1 in 4 young women experience street harassment at least once a month or more in Sydney [8]. The boundaries become tangible when women modify their behaviour in response to perceived threats. A 2016 study by Plan International and Our Watch found that nationally, 1 in 3 young women aged 15-19 believe that girls should avoid public places after dark [9]. What is even more alarming is that 12% of young women in Sydney completely avoid going out at night because they don’t believe it is safe [10].

Existing in these spaces is still a transgression.

One way to promote women’s visibility is to prioritise women’s safety when designing public spaces. Nicole Kalms, director of XYX Lab and Senior Lecturer at Monash University, says it is crucial to engage with women and girls’ stories. She suggests the implementation of gender mainstreaming, an approach employed by the city of Vienna. Through this process, planners incorporate the diversity of women’s experiences to create safer cities for all women and girls. This initiative in Vienna prompted the redesigning of parks to increase girls’ participation in response to withdrawal from this space at adolescence [11].

Listen: Plan International’s new podcast Sexism in the City

Plan International Australia has just launched Sexism and the City featuring journalist Jan Fran and amazing line-up of weekly guests tasked with tackling sexism in cities.

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Australian cities are progressing in this direction. This year, Crowdspot and Monash University, with support from the Victorian government, launched the Gender Equality Map. The online map invites women to make comments about the safety of public places such as train stations, community services and streets by placing a ‘pin’ on a location so that urban policy designers can  incorporate women’s experiences in a more nuanced way.

Importantly, Plan International emphasises the need for a cultural shift in male behaviour to prevent street harassment [12]. There must be a complete change in men’s entitlements towards women’s space for there to be change.

As of now, women can’t move from space to space freely as men can. However, this does not mean that the flaneuse doesn’t exist. Lauren Elkin puts it perfectly, “It is only in becoming aware of the invisible boundaries of the city that we can challenge them. A female flanerie – a flaneuserie – not only changes the way we move through space, but intervenes in organisation of space itself. We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms” [13]. 


Casey Duong

Casey is studying Arts/Law at Monash University and volunteers at the Victorian Women’s Trust, working on capturing stories for VWT’s upcoming annual report. She is passionate about storytelling and is always wondering when she’ll eat her grandma’s spring rolls next.  

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[1] Elkin, L 2006, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Chatto & Windus, London, p. 286

[2] Australian Institute of Criminology, Male victims of non-sexual and non-domestic violence: Service needs and experiences in court, viewed 16 November 2018, https://aic.gov.au/publications/rpp/rpp126/male-victimisation

[3] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 in 5 Assaults of males perpetrated by more than one stranger, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.aihw.gov.au/news-media/media-releases/2018/july/1-in-5-assaults-of-males-perpetrated-by-more-than

[4]  Elkin, L 2006, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Chatto & Windus, London, p. 286

[5] Bryant, W, Bricknell, S 2017, Homicide in Australia 2012, 13 to 2013-14: National Homicide Monitoring Program report, statistical report, Australian Institute of Criminology,  viewed 16 November 2018, file://server2017/Folder%20Redirection/volunteer/Downloads/sr002%20(1).pdf

[6] Davey, M 2018, ‘Men need to change’: anger grows over police response to Eurydice Dixon’s murder, The Guardian, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jun/15/men-need-to-change-anger-grows-over-police-response-to-comedians

[7] Elkin, L 2006, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Chatto & Windus, London, p. 286-287

[8] Plan International 2018, Sexism in the City, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.plan.org.au/-/media/plan/documents/reports/sexism-in-the-city-plan-international-australia-embargoed-copy.pdf

[9] Plan International 2018, Sexism in the City, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.plan.org.au/-/media/plan/documents/reports/sexism-in-the-city-plan-international-australia-embargoed-copy.pdf

[10] Plan International 2018, Sexism in the City, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.plan.org.au/-/media/plan/documents/reports/sexism-in-the-city-plan-international-australia-embargoed-copy.pdf

[11] Kalms, N 2018, ‘To design safer parks for women, city planners must listen to their stories’, Monash University, viewed 16 November 2018, https://lens.monash.edu/@nicole-kalms/2018/06/17/1352712/to-design-safer-parks-for-women-city-planners-must-listen-to-their-stories

[12]  Plan International 2018, Sexism in the City, viewed 16 November 2018, https://www.plan.org.au/-/media/plan/documents/reports/sexism-in-the-city-plan-international-australia-embargoed-copy.pdf

[13] Elkin, L 2006, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Chatto & Windus, London, p. 288