After a long, unforgiving summer under the Arabian sun, I welcomed the gentle breeze of autumn with open arms. The combination of Covid-19 and the unbearable heat conspiratorially joined hands together, suffocating me within concrete walls and oppressive, air-conditioned spaces for three, long months. I wanted to stroll through the streets. I wanted to see nature. I wanted to connect to my neighborhood in Bahrain again as I did when I was a child – to seek comfort. It felt incredible to put on my headphones and walk aimlessly along the streets I had forgotten.
But ten minutes after I walked out the front door, I noticed a beat-down car following me.
When I took my headphones out, the man driving rolled down his window, and with a twisted smile plastered on his face, he yelled obscenities at me that were too crude to repeat. Ah yes, catcalling. Incredulous, I look around me, for refuge, for some crack in the walls to slide through and disappear into – but the city is foreign, and the streets undecipherable.
Memories of my childhood adventures in the neighborhood have become fragmented and then cut off immediately after a certain age. The remnants of make-believe fortresses in abandoned houses, or the bike races with the other children are foggy. A patchy mist washes over what was once the city of my adolescence.
Soon, the roads were orphaned from us girls, and once we returned to them, as women, the roads no longer recognized us
The moment I hit puberty, I was taken off the roads I spent my days on, my playfield and escape. After my mother incessantly rationalized with me about the appropriate social obligation to be home-bound, with proper clothing and not all-day pajamas, I decided to abandon some road time and dedicate myself to learning the art of unfaulty house chores. Less road time.
When I would peek out the window, I noticed the girls of the neighborhood had disappeared as well – only the rumbles and boisterousness of the boys remained for a long time.
I’ve never learned how to protect myself in the city, how to navigate the streets, which roads to cross, and which spaces to seek. Soon, the roads were orphaned from us girls, and once we returned to them, as women, the roads no longer recognized us, no longer accepted us. The city became a hostile environment.
However, when I moved to Istanbul for my studies, I felt as if I were re-introduced to the meaning of the metropolitan. Back in Bahrain, the country of my birth, the capital city of Manama is barely designed to be pedestrian-friendly, let alone female friendly. Walking and exploring the city was more of a luxury for when we felt like tourists in our own country, and I couldn’t go alone, it was more of a family outing. But in Istanbul, I had no choice but to walk everywhere, and doing so was the most liberating experience I had felt in a long time.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Istanbul is the safest city for women to live in – most cosmopolitan cities aren’t designed for female safety – but at least I could walk. At least I learned to navigate the city. Public spaces were inclusive, and they were dominated by both genders. Experiencing this was thrilling, but it also deeply upset me. Women’s ability to fully utilize the city depends on their ability to access transportation – and in Manama, the only option a woman has is to own a car. Public transport or walking are not safe options, and for some, they are often not options at all.
Arab women’s position is still not acknowledged in city planning
The increase of urbanization and the resulting economic success will not reap all its benefits if Arab women still don’t have access to gendered spaces. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the majority of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2030. Therefore, it is imperative to consider the socio-spatial requirements that provide Arab women with a similar level of access to men. Even social movements, like the Arab Spring of 2011 – when women were at the vanguard, leading the streets and holding down the fort in public spaces – didn’t result in much change: Arab women are still not acknowledged in city planning. The increase of urbanization and the resulting economic success will not reap all its benefits if gendered spaces that are inaccessible to Arab women continue to exist. This is why breaking down the gender gap in public spaces is so important.
As stated by the Director and Founder of the Center of London, Ben Rogers, the way public spaces are “designed and run reflects and shapes values, culture, and social structure. Social hierarchies are reflected and sustained in the way that public spaces are designed and controlled, and also through patterns of use and behavior”. For example, when malls, waterparks, cafés, etc. in the Arab world are designed to isolate women, to banish them from the public realm through lack of policing, poor lighting, and hygiene. Most importantly, however, public spaces provide public discourse – the flow and exchange of ideas among members of the community. Rogers argues that public spaces such as cafés and libraries exist to “provide places to share ideas”. If Arab women are excluded from public spaces that are hubs of political, social, and economic discourse, then they are excluded from the ability to reform and enhance the city as well. It is not enough for women to feel safe in broad daylight or with walking with a patriarchal figure only – they must feel safe to access all areas of the city without restrictions.
Once there is awareness of the gender gap in urban areas in the Arab world, the wheels of change can begin to turn
Dr Lina Abirafeh, Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University has mentioned that “urban feminism” is a field that is largely missing from the Arab world. One of the ways we can apply the female perspective to the Arab urban city is through conducting gendered, spatial research and analyses. Once there is awareness of the gender gap in urban areas in the Arab world, the wheels of change can begin to turn.
Furthermore, city planning in Arab cities doesn’t take into consideration the weather constraints on women out in public.
In Bahrain, for example, the temperature in the summer can reach up to a scorching 45 degrees Celsius. This is similar to most of the Arab region where the dominating religion is Islam. Religiously and culturally, many women in the Arab world wear the headscarf and modest clothing. The lack of green areas contributes to rising heat levels, which can affect the participation of Arab women in public spaces within the city. Access to green public spaces will be even more crucial as cities get denser because urban forestry can reduce stress levels and improve overall urban well-being. Additionally, trees, plants, and flowerbeds play a critical role in urban drainage and biodiversity maintenance. Ultimately, air quality and cooler temperatures allow Arab women to access the outside world comfortably, therefore it’s important that urban planning focuses on sustainable greening.
Moreover, safe streets, well-kept public facilities, and gender-specific amenities, such as nursing rooms for mothers, are necessities for women and girls, according to Dr Abirafeh. When designing a safe city, it is also crucial to convey equality for every group within the community.
Women and girls should be able to walk in public without getting catcalled, and if they do, they should have accessible resources that would take their complaints seriously and enforce action.
Arab women should feel part of the city. The ability to navigate your streets, your roads, without a patriarch present, with absolute freedom, is a human experience – you feel like you belong. Only when principles of feminism and equality are applied in the urban planning of Arab cities can women feel safe and secure enough to contribute to the growth of the metropolitan.
Now, as I travel to the different cities of the world, I try to memorize the buildings, cafés, and alleyways of every corner of the city – no matter where I am. I hope to do the same in my city one day, and that every Arab woman can as well.
Written by Rawana Al Dajani.
Rawana is a Political Science and International Relations graduate from BAU, Istanbul. Her area of interest is interspersed through regional development, gender equality, and policy analysis. She is currently a Research Assistant in a think tank back in Bahrain, her country of birth. When she isn’t frantically going through an abundance of reports and data, she enjoys swimming, reading novels, and writing poetry.
Illustrated by Selen Sarikaya.
Selen is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in Florence, Italy. Her work can be found here. She mostly enjoys illustrating small intimate moments and arguably bigger societal issues. Her hobbies include being overwhelmed by where the world is going, mindlessly wandering the streets of Florence and secretly drawing anyone around.