Gender and public spaces: “separate but equal”?

NEW RELEASES – “Why is it extremely natural to have separate public toilets for men and women?”1 professor Jean-François Staszak asked. Public streets, benches, restrooms etc. are highly defined by gender conceptions and traditional power structures. The way in which we engage with public spaces changes intensively depending on our gender. In fact, the ideas of space and gender are intrinsically connected to each other. This issue leads to a strong division of the public sphere between men and women, just as we commonly have separate public restrooms. Moreover, it also leads to discriminatory behaviours towards LGBTQ people. This article suggests that it’s important to consider the issue of gender in the common space in order to progressively conceive the public sphere in accordance to the changing society we live in.

Anglais

Partition of space: the role of gender

“We often consider the environments in which we live to be only a background.”2 However, we all experience space in many different ways and the conception of space can strongly affect how freely we live our lives. Interestingly, there is a definite, gendered division of the public and private spheres. As professor Jean-François Staszak3 (University of Geneva) illustrates, the private space has traditionally been linked to women since it’s often associated with a domestic and delegitimised environment. Instead, the dynamic and engaged public sphere has always been thought of as the space of men. Thus, it can be affirmed that “most cities and towns are designed to favour the able-bodied, working, middle-class male.”4 A clear example of how gender defines the public space is the choice of a man design for cities’ crosswalk signals.5


Not only the configuration of public spaces has been defined in terms of favouring men and their public functions, the public sphere has also been conceived to keep women detached from it. As professor Staszak explains: “l’espace fabrique le genre, et le genre fabrique l’espace”6 (namely, the space generates gender and gender generates space.) UN Women has also remarked that “public spaces are the setting for a myriad of gendered social interactions. As a result of these interactions, public spaces themselves become gendered.”7 In fact, women in public spaces are traditionally expected to be there only to transit from one shelter to another.8 The domestic space is supposed to keep women within their household sphere; hence, their role in the public sphere is strongly separated from the one of men. Thus, the biased conception of public space is reflected in different behaviours. Globally, women experience verbal or nonverbal street harassment and as a result many women limit or alter their use of public space; for instance, they changed their routes or public transportation options.9

 


Public toilets: women and LGBTQ rights

A clear example of discrimination based on gender is offered by public restrooms. Why do we need to separate women and men? Moreover, what can LGBTQ people do in these occasions?

The reality is that the division of men and women in public spaces is not only fostering discrimination against women, but also threatening LGBTQ people’s rights.10 The lack of neutrality within the example of public toilets strongly highlights the problems that may be generated from this link between gender and space. Notably, the confusion between the notions of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ creates further problems. Gender is associated with a person’s identity and it’s a concept that needs to be distinguished from the sex of a person, which is the one assigned at birth or marked on an official document and which does not necessarily match the identity of a human being. In the case of public restrooms, it is clear that the discriminatory division between women and men is remarked and the expression of the identity of LGBTQ people refrained.11 Moreover, accessibility to the public space on a day-to-day basis is strongly limited: what does a transsexual person do in front of public restrooms for men and women for instance?


The dangers that derive from this division are even more evident when states take action to enforce them. North Carolina passed a law in 2016 requiring people to access public restrooms in accordance to their sex. That decision was highly criticised and discussed within the United States and beyond. After recognising the discriminatory nature of such initiative, President Barack Obama required the State to repeal the law since it was clearly against federal legislation.12 As the Guardian’s Terry Kogan explains, these laws are still rooted in the “so-called “separate spheres ideology” of the early 19th century – the idea that, in order to protect the virtue of women, they needed to stay in the home to take care of the children and household chores.”13 Ultimately, therefore, the presence of these old, discriminatory and sexist ideology still affects our lives in modern times and its effects have been extended to LGBTQ people.14

 


Final remarks – Gender neutral spaces

It’s been argued that the use of all gender toilets could solve the issue of discriminatory behaviours since they respect all genders and create a basis of neutrality in the public environment. In fact, all gender toilets have been already adopted in different public institutions, restaurants, hotels etc.15 Whether this could be an ultimate solution to the issue or not, it clearly enforces of the idea that the public sphere should belong to everyone and everyone should have a right to use it. Importantly, public spaces should be thought of as dynamic and malleable structures, reflective of the society we live in. Therefore, gender should be taken into consideration when planning and designing communal spaces since “spatial organization [should] reflect changing gender roles in society.”16






1 SANTOS RODRIGUEZ Victor and GEOS TIPPENHAUER José (2016) “L'Entretien Jet d'Encre #5, Avec Jean-François Staszak”, Jet d’Encre. Available at: http://www.jetdencre.ch/avec-jean-francois-staszak
2 No Country For Women, “Gender and Public Spaces.” Available at: http://nocountryforwomen.org/worksheets/NCFW_Worksheet_Gender_Public_Spa...
3 STASZAK Jean-François (2001) “L'espace domestique: pour une géographie de l'intérieur. ” In: Annales de Géographie, t. 110, n. 620, pp. 339-363. In : Persée. Available at: http://www.persee.fr/doc/geo_0003-4010_2001_num_110_620_1729
4 No Country For Women, Op.Cit. 2
5 STRAWBRIDGE Jackie (2016) “Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”, Next City. Available at: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/designing-gender-into-and-out-of-public...
6 SANTOS RODRIGUEZ Victor and GEOS TIPPENHAUER José, Op.Cit. 1
7 UN Women, “Creating safe public spaces.” Available at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/creat...
8 No Country For Women, Op.Cit. 2
9 STRAWBRIDGE Jackie, Op.Cit. 4
10 BOURCIER Marie-Hélène (2014) “Les toilettes, là où trône le genre”, Slate (FR.) Available at: http://www.slate.fr/story/88047/toilettes-genre
11Ibidem
12 LE BRETON Marine (2016) “Pourquoi sommes-nous autant attachés aux toilettes publiques séparées?”, Le Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2016/06/12/pourquoi-sommes-nous-autant-atta...
13 KOGAN S Terry (2016) “How did bathrooms get to be separated by gender in the first place?”, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/11/gender-bathrooms-t...
14Ibidem
15 BOURCIER, Op.Cit. 10
16 UN Women, “Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls”, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Available at: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/251-safe-public-spaces-for-women-an...

 


MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH

 


Webography

BOURCIER Marie-Hélène (2014) “Les toilettes, là où trône le genre”, Slate (FR.) Available at: http://www.slate.fr/story/88047/toilettes-genre

KOGAN S Terry (2016) “How did bathrooms get to be separated by gender in the first place?”, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/11/gender-bathrooms-t...

LE BRETON Marine (2016) “Pourquoi sommes-nous autant attachés aux toilettes publiques séparées?”, Le Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2016/06/12/pourquoi-sommes-nous-autant-atta...

No Country For Women, “Gender and Public Spaces.” Available at: http://nocountryforwomen.org/worksheets/NCFW_Worksheet_Gender_Public_Spa...

SANTOS RODRIGUEZ Victor and GEOS TIPPENHAUER José (2016) “L'Entretien Jet d'Encre #5, Avec Jean-François Staszak”, Jet d’Encre. Available at: http://www.jetdencre.ch/avec-jean-francois-staszak

SINI Rozina (2016) “'We don't care' - The new sign for gender-neutral toilets”, BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37187370

STASZAK Jean-François (2001) “L'espace domestique: pour une géographie de l'intérieur. ” In: Annales de Géographie, t. 110, n. 620, pp. 339-363. In : Persée. Available at: http://www.persee.fr/doc/geo_0003-4010_2001_num_110_620_1729

STRAWBRIDGE Jackie (2016) “Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”, Next City. Available at: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/designing-gender-into-and-out-of-public...

TACOLI Cecilia (2012) “Urbanization, gender and urban poverty: paid work and unpaid care work in the city”, UNFPA. Available at: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/UEPI%207%20Tacoli...

THORN Rachael (2016) “Why toilets are a battleground for transgender rights”, BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36395646

UN Women, “Creating safe public spaces.” Available at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/creat...

UN Women, “Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls”, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Available at: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/251-safe-public-spaces-for-women-an...

WIMAN Veronica, “Fear and Gender in Public Space.” Available at: http://www.genderandpublicspace.org/

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