Feminism and intersectional perspectives on the right to the city

Lea CARSTENS et Linda PASH, 2016

This sheet makes the link between feminist struggles and the right to the city, in European urban projects.


«  Let’s try different paths, let’s create confusion with the things we have to say, let’s hit the center by creating surprise and make ourselves visible  » (Rage, 2014).

Right to the City and feminist actions are often separated even when one could be helpful to the other. We, Linda and Lea, are involved in both movements and would like our group fighting for the right to the city to advocate for feminist perspectives. So in this article we ask how the feminist and intersectional perspective can be applied to the city. La rage, a feminist group fighting for the right to the city in Hamburg, notes that there are different aspects to focus on such as power and norms, gender stereotypes, work, street harassment, and the division between the public and private sphere (La rage, 2014). This shows that the perspectives of the right to the city are always gendered. Topics in the public space are perceived differently by gender.

Although there are many projects that link feminist struggles and the right to the city around the world, the context we will discuss is European and German because this is the context in which we operate.

Let us start with a brief description of the right to the city movement from a feminist critique. On this basis, we will bring out feminist and intersectional perspectives on the city and look at groups and projects that link feminist and right-to-the-city demands.

We want to present their struggles and thus shed light on the many and varied meanings of the right to the city and all the perspectives we need to reconsider.

Right to the city and feminism

The right to the city is an urban movement of demands at the global level that confronts neoliberal hegemony with its own demands for urban development. The roots of the movement’s claims can be found in the writings of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre who introduced the claims of the right to the city in the 1960s (Holm, 2011). The right to the city cannot be reduced to the current use of the public sphere ; it also includes access to political debates and future developments. Lefebvre speaks of two rights : «  the right to centrality  » and «  the right to difference  » as central elements of the right to the city. The first right means access to urban spaces of infrastructure and knowledge. The second sees the city as a space of conflict and gathering (Holm, 2011 :90). The city must therefore be able to reconcile its inherent diversity with individual and social benefit. Thus, the city becomes collective, a place where people come together. It is even more important to note that today it is no longer the «  Fordist city  » (in the context of Lefebvre’s thought) that is at the heart of the critique, but rather the «  neoliberal city  » that is associated with new methods of production and the increase of new forms of exclusion (ibid.) The participation of displaced citizens who have to leave their homes because of gentrification, migrants affected by restrictive immigration policies, and all the other marginalized groups in this current capitalist system that are affected by the exclusions produced by the «  neoliberal city .

In this sense, the right to the city requires a redistribution in favor of oppressed groups, a recognition and consideration of difference and the possibility of democratic decision making for all (ibid.) However, it is important to consider that there are several groups from different contexts involved in the movement. However, there is a feminist critique that explains that the Lefebvrian notion of the right to the city does not pay enough attention to the patriarchal power structures that affect the movement and thus the right to the city of individuals (Fenster, 2006). The inscription of gendered power relations on women’s bodies*1 is represented in the everyday use of urban space. We will now present feminist perspectives on the city.

Feminist critiques of the city

Feminist scholars (such as Valentine) have long discussed the gendered division of public and private space, where private space is linked to women* and the public sphere to men. Private space was linked to recreation and public to wage labor, but more often, the home was not the place of recreation or rest for women* but rather their place of work. In the urban context, these binary categories are often not well represented (Frank, 2004). There is little research on the perception of the gendered subject in urban space. The gender divide has a long tradition of white middle-class women* being seen as the janitors of the family and the home. Public space was recognized as the dangerous domain of males and women* were excluded from it (Rage, 2014). Although this division is rooted in the rise of the bourgeois family in the nineteenth century, it is still an operative categorization for gendered and racialized bodies and affects the right to the city (Sweet and Escalante, 2014). Once again, feminist scholars have emphasized the fact that space is a resource of society that is not distributed equally. The use of public space changes according to gendered subjects (Becker, 2008). For example, the discursive construction of places that scare women* influence women’s daily lives, which may lead them to avoid certain places or areas of the city. In one study, women* were asked how they felt about going running at night (Strüver 2010:220f.) Some said they were afraid of the dark and the risk of sexual assault in public space. Others, on the other hand, found the darkness to be protective when they did not feel good about their bodies, especially when they did not feel thin enough.

At night, their bodies are free from the gaze of onlookers (ibid.). In addition, it is important to keep in mind that almost all women* will experience sexual or street harassment in their lives, whether it be through verbal abuse, being whistled at, or physical abuse. Access to gendered spaces begins very early in the socialization of the gender roles we are expected to follow. Boys, for example, are more likely to play games that require space and noise and that use physical force, such as soccer or martial arts. Girls, on the other hand, have less expensive hobbies such as skipping rope or playing with dolls. Through these games, children learn not only to play gendered roles but also to appropriate space differently (Strüver, 2010:221). This form of socialization remains powerful throughout life.

All of these examples show that places and their uses reflect the power structures and their cultural meanings that constitute bodies. We must therefore consider spaces and places as social phenomena in which gendered subjects are positioned, controlled and - if they do not behave in the right way - sanctioned. This highlights how women’s practices* are influenced by patriarchal structures that restrict their movements in the city.

Demands for feminist city planning

Sociologist Paula Soto Villagrán has shown that men are defined as a normed subject in the organization of urban space. City planning does not consider the gender-specific divisions of labor mentioned above.

This is why urban planning is inherently gendered. The urban space stems from the society that does not see different, gendered subjects but considers men as the norm. As a result, the functionality of urban space is masculine. The male perspective is therefore an advantage for gender interpretations and locations. Through this practice, gender is made invisible (Soto Villagrán, 2013). Binary oppositions (such as public/private) are reproduced as a consequence of ideological constructions. The invisibility of women* in urban life is perpetuated by the patriarchal social order. This only amplifies female and male stereotypes in the reproduction process. Modern urbanism claims that the spheres of life, work, consumption and free time are strictly separated. A feminist perspective shows that these spheres differ in their gender identities. This approach shows the hierarchies, power relations and essentialization in the city.

The right to the city movement in the German context.

In the European context, many people are active in the right to the city movement. Andrej Holm notes that, in the German context, there is a profound difference between the struggle of «  Kotti & Co. ", a group of migrants who are beneficiaries of housing in Kreuzberg in Berlin, against their displacement and the middle-class struggle for a common right to the city (Holm, 2011). Rage, a group linked to the right-to-city movement in Hamburg, relays this observation : the German right-to-city movement is predominantly a white middle-class movement. This is why intersectional analysis is often absent from right-to-city debates (ibid.). Rage criticizes, as we do, the fact that feminist perspectives are often excluded from the activist groups mentioned. Often, these groups are part of the far-left scene, for whom feminist knowledge is readily accepted but yet not integrated into political organizing and action (La rage, 2014). In discussion groups, men are the ones who predominantly monopolize the floor. These dominant behaviors in discussions (there are certainly women* who exhibit the same type of behaviors), are often not reflected in the groups. One must therefore often wonder who is speaking, who is excluded, who is absent.

Another issue that is highlighted in The Rage is the division of labour in the groups. Activities are often distributed according to traditional gender patterns. The following question is therefore worth asking : «  which work is brought to the forefront ? ". Most of the time, women* do the work of the little hands, such as organizing meetings, writing emails, taking care of the group, moderating discussions, writing protocols, etc. Men, on the other hand, represent the group and are the ones who are the most important. The men, on the other hand, represent the group, talk to the press etc. It is the same with the role of the moderator : women* often perform this task in the background while men take advantage of these moments for their own interest (according to our own experience). All these examples show that even in these activist groups, the feminist approach is sorely lacking. «  Surely we can do better than giving women the space they already have!  » (The Rage, 2014). When we claim the right to the city for all, it is essential to transparently show our own privilege and hierarchies in the group, as well as power relations like gender, race, class, and body.

Strategies for a City for All

Fortunately, there are groups that want to see change and are reclaiming urban public space for women*. An interesting example is the «  Girl Gang over2  » project that shows feminist urban art against street harassment. Photos show a violent gang of girls, in public space where women have been threatened or in places known to be dangerous for them. The women* in the photos are the opposite of their usual representation in advertisements (where they are normally represented as half-naked objects). In our opinion, this project is a wonderful strategy against the commodification of women*, street harassment and the construction of threatening places. These photos can be placed on walls, windows or other places so that women* reclaim the city as subjects. Taking over these places that are not made for women* gives them power.

In the last years, in different German cities, women* and girls wanted to take back the night. They protest in non-mixed demonstrations to take back the night street. This is a strong signal against places that seem threatening to women* and the prejudice that women* should not go out at night because it is dangerous. These nighttime protests highlight the strong connection between the right to the city and the feminist approach. In their book, the feminist group The Rage, gives many examples where the right-to-the-city and feminist perspectives are connected.The Hamburg senate introduced a regulation zone that forbids women to wear miniskirts on Hansaplatz. This decree was aimed directly at the sex workers who usually put themselves there, the original plan of the Senate was to move them. Rage and other groups for the right to the city supported the struggle of the sex workers and many people came to Hansaplatz wearing miniskirts to show the absurdity of this decree and the fact that it was obviously aimed at banning sex workers from working on this square. There are many other projects around the world that connect the right to the city and feminist struggles, such as the harassment map in Cairo, Egypt, where sexual violence is mapped on an online map. In Madrid, it was the group Territorio Doméstico that brought the «  care  » workers to demonstrate in the streets in order to take this type of work out of the private domain and make it visible. It is important for us to show how feminist critiques are necessary in the debates about the right to the city, as soon as it is possible, as we have seen, to link feminist actions with those for the right to the city. This requires starting with focus groups, learning to listen, being patient and showing solidarity with other struggles and approaches. In these practices, we can see a starting point for a feminist perspective for groups fighting for the right to the city.

1 We write women* with an asterisk because in German we use the term FLTI* which means women, lesbian, trans and intersex.

2 See Girls Gangs Over


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SOTO VILLAGRÁN, P. (2013), On gender (in) urban research. Theoretical and empirical reflections from Latin America, in HUFFSCHMID, A., K. Wildner (eds.), Urban Research from Latin America. New urban scenarios : public sphere - territoriality - imaginarios. Bielefeld : transcript, 187-202.

STRÜVER, A. (2010), KörperMachtRaum und RaumMachtKörper : Bedeutungsverflechtungen von Körper und Räumen, in BAURIEDL, S. et al. (eds.) : Gender relations, spatial structures, place relations. Explorations of diversity and difference in the ‘spatial turn’. 1st ed. Münster. Westfälisches Dampfboot, 217-237.

SWEET, E. L., and S. O. ESCALANTE (2014), Bringing bodies into planning : Visceral methods, fear and gender violence. Urban Studies, Sage Publications.

Girls Gangs Over [consulté le 10.06.2016]

Carte du harcèlement sexuel [consulté le 10.06.2016]

Left Vision : Andrej Holm - Right to the City (Part 3) [consulté le 10.06.2016]

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