Every time I walk down a New York City sidewalk, I’m in a 1950s James Dean movie. We’re playing a game of chicken, where — at least in the movie version — two cars drive toward each other along the same path. The first one who swerves out of the way to avoid collision is labeled “chicken” — the weaker one.
In my case, it’s not with cars, but with humans. Human males, in particular. When a male body — of just about any age — is walking towards me, I continue as long as I possibly can to see if he will step out of the way. He never does.
What happens instead is a collision. I’ve been bonked with elbows and shoulders, scowled at, and a few times nearly knocked to the ground. Most of the time, I’m the chicken who swerves. But I try to hold out as long as I possibly can — to make the point, if nothing else.
I started to note these spatial gender dynamics on city sidewalks, wondering if everyone shared my experience. Was I expected to step out of the way every time a man was headed in my direction? Was there an unwritten rule on this that I wasn’t aware of?
Like manspreading and other patriarchal practices of taking up too much space, sidewalk sexism is a way to exert power, to say “I own this space” and to say “you must step out of the way for me.”
I’ve learned this in my informal study: the pavement patriarchy never steps out of the way. It is a daily micro-reminder of who owns public space.
Keep reading here: https://linaabirafeh.medium.com/sidewalk-sexism-93a5b6760d82
But the bottom line is that women are expected to behave on the sidewalk as they should in other parts of life as well — sweet and discreet. Don’t be too loud. Don’t demand attention. And certainly don’t take up too much space.
I did a piece on feminist cities once, and sexo-spatial dynamics, and who takes up space. The full article has a summary of what I learned – go here: https://linaabirafeh.medium.com/sidewalk-sexism-93a5b6760d82
Ultimately, if women don’t feel safe in a place — no one will feel safe. It is simply NOT a safe place for anyone. Women are the barometer by which such things must be measured.
Women are an early warning system for a society’s safety and stability.
Because I’m happy to be a broken record for as long as it takes, I’ll say again: violence against women curbs our freedom and mobility, limits our choices, and chokes our power. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence.
And rape myths are embedded into the geography of cites: “Why were you walking alone at night?!” We are constantly asked to account for ourselves when exercising our own rights to free movement.
Feminist geography is essentially a way to look at a particular space to determine who is included and who is excluded — and how. This is done by examining specific design features inherently shaped by gender (read: power). When looking at cities through a feminist lens, we learn one critical thing: spaces — particularly cities — are designed by, and for, men.
And it’s not just sidewalks. We’re talking about transport systems, public parks, everywhere that is shared space.
Here’s the answer. Firstly, build cities by/with/for women. Ask women for their input, and follow through on it. Challenge the assumption that urban space is, by default, male space. Build a feminist city. Trust me, it’s better for all of us.
And, reclaim sidewalks as shared space.
I’d like to remind the pavement patriarchy that public space is (supposedly-)shared space. And that sidewalk sexism is a practice that has been learned — and can just as easily be un-learned. Learning to share sidewalk space is about etiquette. It’s how we must coexist. Anything less is simply being an asshole.
I refuse to allow the pavement patriarchy to engage me in a perpetual game of chicken. Men: you are not James Dean. And this is not the 1950s — one would hope.
It is time to evolve — or get off the sidewalk.