Street harassment and social control of young Muslim women in Brussels: destabilising the public/private binary

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  • 1 Postdoctoral researcher, KU Leuven, Leuven Institute of Criminology, Belgium and Université de Liège, Centre d’études de l’ethnicité et de migration, , Belgium
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While some research has been undertaken in recent decades into sexual violence against women in public space, the same cannot be said about everyday, ‘mild’ forms of harassment. From field research in Brussels between 2013 and 2016 with young people, the majority of whom have a (Muslim) migration background, we can conclude that physical violence happens only rarely and that the fear experienced by these young women relates to a more general, ambient state of vigilance, which relates to feeling out of place; public space remains a predominantly masculine domain. One of the main findings of the study is that ‘mild’ forms of harassment are used as a strategy of social control by men hanging out and that young women apply defence tactics to protect themselves against the perceived dangers in the public domain. Street harassment is embedded in dual affective dynamics, which generates feelings of belonging among young men and feelings of threat in young women. Here street harassment emerges as a mode of social control which ‘keeps them in their place’.

Abstract

While some research has been undertaken in recent decades into sexual violence against women in public space, the same cannot be said about everyday, ‘mild’ forms of harassment. From field research in Brussels between 2013 and 2016 with young people, the majority of whom have a (Muslim) migration background, we can conclude that physical violence happens only rarely and that the fear experienced by these young women relates to a more general, ambient state of vigilance, which relates to feeling out of place; public space remains a predominantly masculine domain. One of the main findings of the study is that ‘mild’ forms of harassment are used as a strategy of social control by men hanging out and that young women apply defence tactics to protect themselves against the perceived dangers in the public domain. Street harassment is embedded in dual affective dynamics, which generates feelings of belonging among young men and feelings of threat in young women. Here street harassment emerges as a mode of social control which ‘keeps them in their place’.

Key messages

  • ‘Mild’ forms of street harassment perpetrated by men are used as a strategy of social control.

  • Young women use a series of defence tactics to protect themselves against the perceived dangers in public space.

  • Street harassment is embedded in dual affective dynamics of belonging in the neighbourhood, among men, and threat and anxiety, among women.

Introduction

Since #MeToo, much of the public debate on gender-based violence and harassment has focused on private or semi-public spaces such as the workplace, whereas it is clear that the public domain attracts its own variants of sexual violence. From geographical research we know that women and girls are socialised into a restricted use of public space: ‘women find that when in public space their personal space is frequently invaded by whistles, comments or actual physical assault from strange men. This inability of women to choose with whom they interact and communicate profoundly affects their sense of security in public’ (Valentine, 1989: 386). In public space, which is predominantly a masculine domain, women do not have the same rights of access and activity and they are also more observed and approached by strangers than men in public spaces (Bagheri, 2014). This results in the application of practices of conformity and resistance which are often learned from early age onwards (Bilge, 2010; Bracke and Fadil, 2012; Ehrkamp, 2013).

Feminist scholars have argued that the fear of being physically attacked in public space insidiously shapes how women relate to the city and that these women divide the city into places that are safe and those that are not (Stevenson, 2003: 39). In general, women are always considering physical and sexual danger in everyday situations (Stanko, 2013). These practices of conformity and resistance are the result of women and girls being subject to a variety of acts within the sexual violence continuum (Kelly, 1988). ‘The pervasive nature of men’s sexual violence means that women make sense of individual actions in relation to a continuum of related experiences across a lifetime’ (Boyle, 2019: 21). That is why it’s interesting to notice that quite some criminological research into the phenomenon has focused primarily on the fear of violent crime, while also the policy response centres around grave violence (such as rape and assault) and overlooks the many small-scale, ambient and everyday conflicts which we could call street harassment (Boyle, 2019).

To study street harassment among women with a migration background implies that we need to take into account the ‘intersectionality’ of sexual violence, which includes not only sexism but also racism and class-based violence (Bilge, 2010; Ahmad, 2019). This intersectionality framework (Crenshaw, 1991; 1990; Cho et al, 2013; Collins, 2015; 2000) is particularly relevant when studying Muslim women in western societies who may face multiple threats and harms as a result of them being a woman, with a migration background and adhering to a (non-dominant) religion (FRA, 2017). In this regard, some work has been done on anti-Muslim hate crime (Awan and Zempi, 2015; Zempi, 2020), Islamophobic violence (Alimahomed-Wilson, 2017; Sidrah, 2019), violence against black women (Bhattacharjee and Silliman, 2002; Jacobs, 2017) or violence against central American women (Cook Heffron, 2019). While some empirical work has been done on everyday, ambient harassment in public space (Davis, 1993; Vera-Gray, 2018), it remains understudied (Vera-Gray, 2016). Furthermore, not much research has been undertaken on the tactics of risk management undertaken by these women (Ilahi, 2008; Roberts, 2019) or on the role played by informal social control of bystanders and onlookers (Mohamed and Stanek, 2019).

In this article I present findings on the interactions between Brussels’ boys and girls (mostly with a migration background), especially in public space but also elsewhere.1 In the article I show how girls and young women engage in a variety of tactics to deal with fear and a sense of insecurity. The data suggest that street harassment is embedded in dual affective dynamics of belonging and threat. Here street harassment emerges as a mode of social control which keeps these young women ‘in their place’ (Epstein, 1996: 202). From this, considering that the large majority of the urban youth in the sample are second- or third-generation migrants (and most of them are also Muslim), I move on to discuss how the public/private divide is mediated culturally and I argue that it is essential to also reflect on how space produces and affects behaviour, social roles and individual emotions.

Methodology

The fieldwork on which this article draws took place in five neighbourhoods in Brussels between 2013 and 2016. Four of the five neighbourhoods are located in the de-industrialised area of the city around the Canal, which is known as the ‘poverty sickle’, and are characterised by unemployment, high density, ethnic diversity, low income, low education level, low-quality housing and public investments, large and young families (Corijn and Vloeberghs, 2009). The fifth neighbourhood is a lower-middle class area near the VUB university campus which is only slightly less ethnically diverse, but which scores better on scales such as income, poverty and housing quality.

The research involved countless hours of observation in various public spaces, as well as loosely structured interviews and focus groups with young people between 11 and 25 years old, most of them with a migration background. Eventually, 48 young people were interviewed. These encounters took place as a result of ethnographic work in two youth clubs, which I joined as a researcher and volunteer youth worker, and workshops in a secondary school. In addition, I had informal chats with young people during youth club activities as well as during walks in their neighbourhoods. Some of the fieldwork activities were documented by a filmmaker, which led to the documentary La Ville Mon Espace.2

In the research, I focused on young people between 11 and 25 years old, an age spread that is not uncommon in youth research (see Travlou, 2003). Regarding ethnic origin, most of the participants were second- or third-generation migrants; only 10 of the participants were born outside Belgium. More than half of the sample groups (26 in total) consisted of young people with a migration background in northern Africa or the Middle-East. The other parts of the sample groups consisted of a smaller group of 11 Europeans, comprising 9 ‘original’ Belgians, 1 Italian, 1 Spanish, a group of 10 Sub-Saharan Africans from Congo, Cameroun, Ghana, Angola, Kenia and Rwanda, and, finally, one youngster with roots in Pakistan. In terms of gender, 15 of the 48 youngsters were female and 33 were male. Regarding age, finally, the sample consisted of 12 younger teenagers (10 to 14 years old), 27 older teenagers (15 to 18), and 9 young adults (19 to 25).

In terms of methodology, I developed a scenario consisting of the following elements: (1) exploratory observation including the mapping of youth spaces and of control infrastructures, (2) ethnographic fieldwork with a local partner (youth club or secondary school), (3) focus groups, (4) mental maps drawn by the participants (inspired by Lynch (1981), (5) individual interviews, (6) a neighbourhood walk where participants showed their favourite places in the neighbourhood, and (7) longer observations undertaken by myself in a dérive style (Knabb, 2006; Coverley, 2018). This sequence, obviously, was dependent on the circumstances of fieldwork in every case study, as well as on the different agendas of the local actors involved.

Formal interactions with young people, in the form of focus groups or interviews, included questions on (1) personal information, (2) often-used public spaces, (3) social environment, (4) interactions in public space, (5) emotions, (6) life-world and (7) suggestions for future research or policy recommendations. At the time of the research, formal institutional ethical approval was not mandatory. Yet, most of the established ethical requirements were followed regarding informed consent, transparency, research procedure, anonymity and discomfort, while being attentive to power inequality and the ethics of dissemination (De Backer, 2017). Data were analysed using thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006).

Fear and the female tactic

In this article I discuss spatial gender patterns and the interactions between young men and women, using de Certeau’s (1984) strategy/tactic dyad. In this framework, strategies are used to dominate the powerless while tactics are employed to resist this oppression. Crucial in de Certeau’s analysis is that oppression and resistance, or strategies and tactics, are connected to the ownership of place.

A tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. […] It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of ‘opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. (p 37)

The oppressed are not only out of power; they are also out of place. This imagery proves to be quite potent to understand the gendered nature of public space among young men and women. Take for instance Karsten et al’s (2001) observation that

Among mixed groups of youngsters, boys are dominant in dividing the space: girls exert no direct influence on the composition, form and activities of the groups. In hanging around boys occupy the territory. Groups of youngsters redefine public spaces into meeting places: they appropriate a public space. (pp 87–8; my translation)

Not only do girls barely have an impact on the choice of activities; they are also barred from claiming the space in the same way that boys and young men do. The resistance of women to the male dominance is only temporally. They are ‘poaching’ on a terrain that isn’t theirs, as Fielder (2001) calls it. As a result, women’s ‘apparently “taken for granted” choices of routes and destinations are in fact the product of “coping strategies” women adopt to stay safe’ (Valentine, 1989: 385–6).

The different experiences of boys and girls in public space can at first glance be understood as the result of feelings of insecurity and fear of violence crime. The majority of the girls interviewed feel unsafe in situations or contexts with a lot of people. Interestingly, while Jacobs (1961) argues it takes ‘eyes on the street’ in order to generate safety, my female participants generally say that they feel safer in deserted places, or in calmer neighbourhoods, which they name boring elsewhere. Dalila (16, f), for instance, explains how she might go shopping in one or two stores but then she prefers to go home. She does not like being among many people. Explaining this to Nouhaila (19, f) she frowned: ‘rather on the contrary! When there are many people in the street then you know if a man would do something or attack you or something, then you could immediately shout. Then there are many people that could help.’ Nouhaila is ‘streetwise’ (that is, much more often in public space and more knowledgeable about Brussels’ public spaces) compared to girls like Dalila (18, f), Monifa (18, f) or Gzifa (19, f) that estimate places are safer without people around, which may explain the difference in opinion.

Many girls and young women talk about how fear limits their mobility in the city.

Faiza (18, f): When I went to pick up Julia in Forest and it was already 9pm, I was afraid to go there on my own. So yes, in some cases a girl cannot walk on the street and pick up someone just like that.

Dalila changed her behaviour in public space as a result of previous personal experiences in public space. Remarkably, many girls and young women told me that they prefer to stay at home. When probed further, most of them said that this is not because their parents are compelling them to, but because they ‘simply like being at home’. Certain factors can affect this self-imposed curfew, factors they may not be aware of. The ‘virtual curfew’, as Kinsey (1984) names it, may in this case translate into young women’s staying at home out of their own volition.

Among my participants, fear of violent crime was regularly mentioned, although Brussels doesn’t seem to be perceived as a particularly unsafe city. Stories of real danger or violence, luckily, are seldom. Julia (18, f) was threatened with a knife once and Faiza (18, f) remembers that her granny was attacked once. The presence of people, especially men hanging out, however, is perceived as threatening.

Angela Louis (19, f): I don’t like it when they stare at me. I don’t know; it’s a sentiment.

Dalila (18, f): You see boys hanging out, that are smoking or doing drugs or something and you never know what is going to happen as a girl.

Gzifa (19, f): There are others that shout at you like ‘hey girl, you want to be my girlfriend? Come let’s go and have a drink.’ I don’t answer. I just walk on.

Fear and feelings of insecurity are not necessarily linked to previous experiences of violent crime. In fact, few girls and young women reported having ever encountered such a danger. Rather the most cited danger relates being talked to, stared at and cat-called to. Many ‘minor’ forms of threat are mentioned. Bianca (18, f), for instance, tells the story of being harassed by groups of boys around the Sint-Guido metro station. The phenomenon particularly takes place when she’s alone. ‘When you’re alone and you pass by and they all watch you, they try to intimidate you.’

These women’s stories echo what Koskela and Pain (2000: 275) call ‘the social night’: women’s routines of avoidance of particular places is not underpinned by the fear of concrete structures but by fear of unknown men. ‘Even the darkness of the night itself, a “natural” element of environmental difference frequently implicated in the fear of crime, is socially mediated.’ Women are cautious of the social rather than the material night. Although women’s behaviour may be more affected by the imagery of the social night than by their personal experiences of violent crime, this does not mean that the perceived danger is imagined or fictional. This is in line with the point made by Kelly (1988) that (young) women’s experiences in public space are part of a continuum of sexual violence, which includes intimidation and harassment on the one end and severe violence on the other. It is this feeling of not knowing what to expect and what to prepare for, that keeps women in a state of vigilance and fear, in order to keep them in their place (Epstein, 1996).

Several tactics are used by young women to deal with the dangers of the social night. First, girls and young women draw, often subconsciously, affective maps of harassment and danger of the neighbourhoods they frequent, including streets to avoid, and they start doing so at an early age. When asked whether she knows streets where she feels unsafe, Meryem (13, f) answers: ‘Sometimes, in a few particular streets, so I won’t stay there long, I will quickly pass by rather than hang out there.’ As indicated by Valentine (1989: 371), sticking the label of ‘danger’ to particular places helps ‘to maintain an illusion of control over their safety, they need to know where and when they may encounter “dangerous men” in order to avoid them.’ Another female tactic of avoidance is to stay at home altogether. Most girls and young women, though, don’t mention fear or insecurity as a reason for staying in.
Q:Do you hang out there a lot? Or in other places in the city?
Jihane (16, f):Not so often, because I prefer to stay at home.
Q:Why is that?
Jihane:It’s easy, there’s Internet there, you have everything.

Many potential interventions are possible to avoid harassing or threatening men, or to convey the message that you’re ignoring them. Usually it’s a combination of the following: avoid eye contact, walk faster, cycle, listen to an iPod, make a telephone call, dress discretely…These tactics are used in order to convey the message ‘leave me alone’.

One often-mentioned practice is chaperoning.
Gzifa (19, f):If I want to go out at night, I will bring my niece. Or my dad. Alone I’m always afraid.

Although bringing a friend is not always sufficient to remedy the threat, Dalila (18, f) believes: ‘I know what other boys think when they see two girls alone in the street. So yes, I go home quickly then.’ This practice is sometimes discussed explicitly in terms of a defence tactic, that is, to bring a chaperone will deter danger. In other cases, it is explicitly not a safety measure: ‘I don’t like to shop alone, I need some advice’ (Nouhaila, 19, f). This resonates with the young women claiming that they do not hang out simply because they prefer to stay at home. This begs the question whether some women do not in fact adopt defence tactics from their friends and acquaintances, inspired by the shared imaginary of the social night, without being fully aware.

Another tactic is to dress ‘appropriately’: ‘the constraints imposed by fear of violent attack also have deeper emotional and psychological effects. […] They preclude certain activities in public space, restrict independent mobility and police an unofficial code of ‘appropriate’ dress and behavior’ (Pain, 1997: 234–5). Monifa (18, f), a Muslim youngster who recently arrived from Kenia, speaks of ‘closed clothing’ to indicate the appropriate dress she chooses for going out into the street. Nouhaila (19, f), an extroverted third-generation Moroccan in Brussels and a law student, similarly negotiates her clothing in and outside her home neighbourhood. Quite a lot of research shows that wearing the hijab or related religious veils has a comforting and protective effect (Swami et al, 2014) and offers the wearer the chance to take control (Ruby, 2006), while it strengthens their social, cultural and religious identity (Croucher, 2008).

Harassment as social control

The vibrant public life in the neighbourhoods I studied in Brussels seems to crystallise in a few distinguishable patterns. For instance, young women are usually among other women, when they enjoy leisure time outdoors.
Q:You don’t have any boys with you, how come?
Monifa (18, f):No, that would be weird.
The same goes for young men, when they hang out in public space. Rarely are young women accompanying them. Another pattern emerges when one compares the mobility of young men and women. While boys tend to hang out in their own neighbourhood, girls, when and if they leave the house, leave the neighbourhood entirely and go to a friend’s house or hang out in the city centre.

Nouhaila (19, f): In [the] Chicago [area], or perhaps most neighbourhoods in Brussels, boys are more likely to stay in the neighbourhood than girls. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I won’t say girls are not welcome in the neighbourhood, but a girl must go to school, she must study, she can go out if she wants, but she cannot hang around in the neighbourhood and do nothing. That doesn’t happen. It’s always the boys that hang out outside. I go with some friends to the park, but we can’t stay until 1am or midnight or so. That’s impossible. We can during the day. If you want to go out in the evening, that’s okay, but then you go to the cinema or go eat something and then straight away to home. Boys might do the same but then afterwards they don’t go home immediately. They will hang out and chat a bit.

Or as Faiza (18, f) puts it: ‘girls do something when they leave the house, where boys do nothing and hang out’. Curiously, the young men I interviewed are generally unaware of this pattern.
Tarek:Of course. Girls don’t stay out all night alone. They have to go home.
Q:Do you have the feeling that girls are allowed the same as boys?
Kamal (18, m):How do you mean ‘allowed’?
Q:To go out in the weekend, to meet with friends, to go outside...
Kamal:I think so, yes.

It becomes clear that this pattern is highly affective. The convivial atmosphere of familiarity among acquaintances is affectively produced by boys and men occupying and monopolising public space, whereas girls only functionally traverse it or leave the home neighbourhood in order to hang out in the city centre.

This translates into separate effects of anxiety and threat (experienced by some of the women) and comfort and belonging (experienced by most of the men) (see also De Backer, 2018). Similar findings were reported among Dutch Moroccans, showing a dual, gendered experience of comfort and control (Spierings et al, 2016). The following discussion sheds a light on how this dual experience is produced and maintained:
Bérénice (18, f):Boys don’t like to leave the neighbourhood. But we like to shop.
Q:But are you so much richer that you can go shopping constantly? And boys are so much poorer?
Julia (18, f):It’s just boring in the neighbourhood.
Me:I suppose the boys are going to contradict this. […] What else could be a reason for the difference? Does it have something to do with feelings of security, perhaps?
Bérénice:Yes.
Hicham (18, m):Reputation. The reputation of the girl.
Julia:They keep an eye on girls. We are not supposed to be in public space.
This dialogue indicates that in neighbourhoods with an intense parochial atmosphere informal control is exerted over girls and women, maintained through notions such as ‘reputation’ and gendered prescriptions about ‘acceptable’ behaviour.
Nouhaila (19, f):Parents who see their son hanging out will not mind that much, while a girl who’s always outside, that poses a problem. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or a religious thing, but a girl cannot hang out outside constantly. That’s impossible.
When discussing this issue with boys and young men from such neighbourhoods, remarkably many of them are not very aware of the effects of the dual landscape of control and belonging. Others consider this normal. The following interaction between three young men is insightful:
Q:Do you think the situation in the neighbourhood is different for girls than for boys. Ahmed (18, m): Yes.
Bilal (25, m):It’s different for different people. That is normal. Because boys and girls are not identical, there will be a difference. I don’t say that we should promote these differences. But it’s normal. It’s normal that a girl doesn’t have the same relationship with the street than a boy. That is why… It’s difficult. We should compare things that are comparable. A girl is a girl.
Q:Do you think there are families in which boys have more freedom than girls?
Ahmed:That’s normal.
Bilal:But why?
Ahmed:Because when they hang out they will become a pute [French for whore]. Bilal: And a boy who hangs out, doesn’t he then become a whore?
Ahmed:But a boy can do whatever he…
Bilal:You say no matter what!
As a result of the control these young women experience, they may feel more inclined to alter their behaviour in order to avoid the male stare, or simply avoid being in male-dominated space.
Q:Are there specific places in the neighbourhood you don’t feel safe?
Chaimaa (21, f):Street corners, cafes, places where you can find the boys of the neighbourhood.
Q:Nouhaila told me she feels safe in the neighbourhood because she knows these guys she meets at street corners. Is it different with you?
Chaimaa:Depends. If it is family or one of your nephews. I don’t have any family so it annoys me. I don’t have any big brothers so they would more easily harass me. […] When girls want to go outside they cannot stay in the neighbourhood. They do not like to hang around before their doorstep. I remember when I was little I played in front of my house constantly. Until I was 15 or so. Now I really have to leave the neighbourhood. That’s good, because I learn stuff that way, but sometimes I’m afraid if I bring a [female] friend they will harass us again. It annoys me.

The atmosphere of parochiality, which implies a high familiarity with other people present in that space, appears to be key. It seems therefore that parochiality can result in feelings of belonging and being at home for the one, and in social control and threat for the other.

Discussion

The majority of the young people cited in this article are working-class, second- or third-generation migrants, they are born in Brussels but have roots in North Africa, and they are Muslim. From earlier research focusing on public space use within these groups, we know that these women have internalised a system of patriarchy in social and spatial terms, which has a strong effect on the gendered use of public space (Ali, 2005; Abbas and van Heur, 2014; Johnson and Miles, 2014). When asked about this, the young men in Brussels often say that girls and women simply prefer to stay at home. In Hopkins (2006), one participant puts it like this: ‘[i]n Islam, women are requested to wear the hijab, to cover their head, their face, their ears, and the main thing is that they do not reveal the shape of their body. Women are not oppressed. Most women prefer to stay at home and look after the kids you know.’ Yet, we can wonder whether this isn’t, to a certain extent, a protective measure against the expectations of Muslim men and how they envisage appropriate behaviour. Through using this tactic, they experience an increase of freedom while covering their body from the male stare.

While we could consider the actions of men in public space as strategies to oppress women and to control their behaviour, to reinforce their social roles and to manage their emotions of guilt, shame and threat, they can also be seen as tactics against dominant structures of oppression, resulting in powerlessness and insecurity. As Majors and Billson (1993) have argued, a part of the comportment of young men with a migration background in public space can be explained as a coping mechanism

that serves to counter […] the dangers that black males encounter on a daily basis. As a performance, cool pose is designed to render the black male visible and to empower him […] [It] is an ego booster for black males comparable to the kind white males more easily find through attending good schools, landing prestigious jobs, and bringing home decent wages. (Majors and Billson (1993): 5)

Brownlow (2005: 583; see also Connell (1995)) adds that these young men feel excluded from

the dividends of hegemonic masculinity: restricted mobility; reduced access to a good education, good jobs, economic security and a capacity to consume; uncertain social futures with women; and, especially, diminished prospects for achieving a culturally normative male identity.

Faiza (18, f) is probably right when she suggests that young men’s behaviour is (partly) explained by internal group dynamics and the need to prove themselves before their peers. Yet, it is also true that these dynamics not only occur vis-à-vis (young) women. Cheb Khaled (18, m) and Hicham (18, m), in a rather funny interaction, explain that they address passers-by, almost as in a game or a performance:
Me:Do you think people sometimes feel insecure when you are standing there?
Cheb Khaled:Yes, I think that might happen.
Me:Do you sometimes make comments when people pass by?
Cheb Khaled:Yes.
Me:And how do they react?
Hicham:They usually ignore us.
Cheb Khaled:But we don’t do this with everyone. It’s only once in a while.
The young men are aware of the effect a hanging out group can generate, particularly when they make comments directed at passers-by. In one focus group in Peterbos, four young participants talk about how they hang out in front of the local grocery store which they call ‘Le Turc’ (The Turk). Alae (18, m) mentions that nearby that grocery store benches were removed (probably due to issues of nuisance cause by young people hanging out). As a result, he concludes that ‘now that these benches are gone we have to cause nuisance before Le Turc’. In my fieldnotes of that time I wrote

There is a whole group of young adults, all males, standing in front of the local grocery store and the Laundromat. It’s in the heart of the neighbourhood. They are bantering. I am sitting on a bench nearby, didn’t dare to go sit even closer because in this kind of neighbourhood I’m already ‘suspect’. The atmosphere here is one of safety and intimacy. The hanging spot is their fort, the neighbourhood a safe haven. It is a place with a great view. They are kicking a ball to each other to keep busy. (15 March, 2014)

The cool pose, it would seem, is not only related to interactions with (young) women. It is a tactic of resistance against those out-groups considered dominant or powerful (adults, white citizens, middle-class residents).

Apart from the factor of masculinity, we also need to consider how gender-based violence interacts with culture. Authors such as Fogg-Davis (2006) argue that although gender-based violence within migrant communities occurs, we also need to acknowledge ‘the interplay between civic behavior and intersecting structural inequalities, such as racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and spatial poverty’ (p 57). Obviously, street harassment is not a phenomenon that is inherently migrant-related. It is pervasive of all western societies. While most of the statements above were uttered by young people with a migration background it would be wrong to subscribe these phenomena entirely to culturally-transmitted and/or religiously-informed prescriptions about appropriate behaviour. On the contrary, historical work of public space interaction in communities in the west shows remarkably similar accounts. Vrints (2011) for example, in his study of public space violence in the first half of the 20th century, reports that in Mediterranean societies the reputation of the man was primarily dependent of the sexual chastity of his wife. In the social construction of sexual roles, the man was considered a lustful creature that needed to satisfy its needs for health reasons, while the woman was a sexually passive creative that needed to settle for the role of housewife and mother, in order to not to be termed prostitute (p 240). This recalls the work of Merry (1984) who argues that gossip and scandal directed at women were used to impose a strict social control in these communities (for some historical comparisons, see also De Koster (2010) and Muchembled (1991; 2011)).

Not only cultural codes and prescriptions matter, also the socio-spatial context in which they are performed and imposed on these women. What is acceptable behaviour and, therefore, what can be controlled by peers or authorities, depends on the way spaces are produced. For instance, while in the west, public space is a masculine domain and the private sphere is dominated by women, or at least used to be an entirely feminine space, this division does not apply in Muslim communities (Mazumdar and Mazumdar, 2001; Abraham, 2010). The Islamic conceptualisation of public and private is largely contextual. ‘While overall, home is equated with the private world of women, and the neighbourhood with the public domain of man, these are not self-contained, watertight compartments, but rather open to negotiation and re-definition’ (Mazumdar and Mazumdar, 2001: 303). For women ‘different spaces may not be seen within the frame of what is “public” or “private” but instead may be articulated through the categories of the natal [her own family] and the conjugal [family of her husband] houses and neighbourhoods’ (Abraham, 2010: 208). Spaces are defined by a moral architecture relating to the degree of kinship between a woman and the men around her (or vice versa); people who are considered na-mahram belong to a group with whom the man or woman is allowed to marry. This translates spatially in a fluid production of privateness and publicness. For instance, in a private home when na-mahram male guests arrive a part of the home is re-defined as public. Also in public space, it is required that she conforms to ‘a number of protective norms designed to minimize contact and maximize social distance with na-mahram males’ (Mazumdar and Mazumdar, 2001: 305). Veiling and other dress-codes are obvious examples of these protective norms, but also tactics of avoidance through choosing specific paths in public space in order to maximise the distance with males have been documented (Abbas, 2010; Abbas and van Heur, 2014).

Elsewhere I have also argued that spaces and their affective atmospheres have an effect on young people’s gathering in small groups, referred to in a term borrowed from Matthews et al (1998) as ‘microcultures’ (De Backer, 2019). These groups are formed because of shared interests, stories, backgrounds and frames of reference, as well as the places they make their own. Although the microcultures observed in Brussels’ public spaces are never gender-mixed and are always populated by boys and young men, it is conceivable that in the grey zones between public and private or between mahram and na-mahram, temporary atmospheres are created where these Muslim women can feel safe and can produce a feeling of belonging while dealing with physical or sexual violence on the basis of gender and ethnic origin. One could argue that street harassment in itself is a destabilisation of the public/private binary. While individuals are enveloped by a bubble of privateness, this is shattered or penetrated by harassers in the street. That is also why young women routinely traverse public space in a functional way and bring a chaperone: the bubble of privateness is much stronger when it is inhabited by multiple people.

Conclusion

In this article, I show several, often interconnected phenomena related to gender and public space in the context of Brussels. First, I find that hanging out in or simply traversing public space is very different among boys and girls. Boys are more dominant in claiming of public space. The tendency among the participants is that young men spend more time outside but prefer to stay in the neighbourhood, whereas young women either prefer to stay at home or leave the neighbourhood entirely, for a visit to the city centre or a friend’s home. One of the reasons for this is that a majority of my female participants feels insecure in crowded public spaces. Contrary to the ‘eyes on the street’ predicate, they feel safer in deserted places, or in calmer neighbourhoods. There are, however, also data that suggest that the experiences of gender-based violence in public space and the tactics being used are a consequence of street harassment used to impose social control and to ‘keep them in their place’ (Epstein, 1996). It is street harassment as a form of social control. The atmosphere in public spaces of the home neighbourhood has rather different effects on young men and young women. While the former experience deep feelings of comfort and belonging, for the latter this generates feelings of anxiety and threat.

To make sense of this I bring two elements to the discussion, one that interprets young males’ strategies of oppression of women in public space as tactics deriving from the former’s feelings of powerlessness, and one that sheds some light on how cultural codes and prescriptions are translated in public space, which also opens up possibilities for creative subversion of these codes.

Funding

This work was supported by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek) under Grant G063312N

Acknowledgements

I want to thank the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) for having made this research project possible, and Jenneke Christiaens, Els Enhus, Lucas Melgaço, Bas van Heur, Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch and Ilse van Liempt for comments delivered on earlier versions of this paper.

Notes

1

While it was never the goal of the research to focus specifically on either intra-ethnic/-religious or inter-ethnic/-religious interactions, it can be estimated that most of these interactions can be identified as belonging to the former category – that is: interactions between young Muslims with North African roots – due to the composition of the sample (see later in the article) as well as the demographics of the urban areas where field research took place.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FRA (2017) Second European union minorities and discrimination survey – main results, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Luxembourg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hopkins, P.E. (2006) Youthful Muslim masculinities: gender and generational relations, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 31(3): 33752.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ilahi, N. (2008) You gotta fight for your right(s): Street harassment and its relationship to gendered violence, civil society, and gendered negotiations. Doctoral thesis unpublished. Cairo: The American University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Abraham, J. (2010) Veiling and the production of gender and space in a town in north India: a critique of the public/private dichotomy, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 17(2): 191222.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahmad, S.M. (2019) Islamophobic violence as a form of gender-based violence: a qualitative study with Muslim women in Canada, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 3(1) 4566, https://doi.org/10.1332/239868019X15492770695379

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Alimahomed-Wilson, S. (2017) Invisible violence: gender, islamophobia, and the hidden assault on U.S. Muslim women, Women, Gender and Families of Color, 5(1): 7397.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Awan, I. and Zempi, I. (2015) ‘I will blow your face off’ – virtual and physical world anti-Muslim hate crime, British Journal of Criminology, 57(2): 36280, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azv122

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bagheri, N. (2014) Mapping women in Tehran’s public spaces: a geo-visualization perspective, Gender, Place & Culture, 21(10): 1285301.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bhattacharjee, A. and Silliman, J. (2002) Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization, Cambridge: South End Press.

  • Bilge, S. (2010) Beyond subordination vs. resistance: an intersectional approach to the agency of veiled Muslim women, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 31(1): 928. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256860903477662

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boyle, K. (2019) What’s in a name? Theorising the inter-relationships of gender and violence, Feminist Theory, 20(1): 1936, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700118754957

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bracke, S. and Fadil, N. (2012) ‘Is the headscarf oppressive or emancipatory?’ Field notes from the multicultural debate, Religion and Gender, 2(1): 3656.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2): 77101.

  • Brownlow, A. (2005) A geography of men’s fear, Geoforum, 36(5): 58192, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.11.005

  • Cho, S., Crenshaw, K.W. and McCall, L. (2013) Toward a field of intersectionality studies: theory, applications, and praxis, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4): 785810.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Collins, P.H. (2000) Gender, black feminism, and black political economy, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568(1): 4153.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Collins, P.H. (2015) Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas, Annual Review of Sociology, 41: 120.

  • Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Cook Heffron, L. (2019) ‘Salía de uno y me metí en otro1’: exploring the migration-violence nexus among central American women, Violence Against Women, 25(6): 677702, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801218797473

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Corijn, E. and Vloeberghs, E. (2009) Brussel!, Brussels: VUB Press.

  • Coverley, M. (2018) Psychogeography, Harpenden: Oldcastle Books Ltd.

  • Crenshaw, K. (1990) Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color, Stanford Law Review, 43(6): 1241300.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crenshaw, K. (1991) Race, gender, and sexual harassment, Southern Californian Law Review, 65: 146774.

  • Croucher, S.M. (2008) French-Muslims and the Hijab: an analysis of identity and the islamic veil in France, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 37(3): 199213. https://doi.org/10.1080/17475750903135408

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davis, D. (1993) The harm that has no name: street harassment, embodiment, and African American women, UCLA Women’s Law Journal, 4: 13378.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Backer, M. (2017) Young People, Public Space and Identity: A More-Than-Representational Ethnography of Hanging Out in Brussels, Brussels: Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Backer, M. (2018) Regimes of visibility: hanging out in Brussels’ public spaces, Space and Culture, 22(3): 30820.

  • De Backer, M. (2019) Class, style and territory in the drari microcultures of Brussels, Societies, 9(3): 6481, https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9030064

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Koster, M. (2010) Jongeren en criminaliteit: een lange geschiedenis van de middeleeuwen tot heden, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, 52(3): 30817.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ehrkamp, P. (2013) ‘I’ve had it with them!’ Younger migrant women’s spatial practices of conformity and resistance, Gender, Place & Culture, 20(1): 1936, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2011.649356

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Epstein, D. (1996) Keeping them in their place: hetero/sexist harassment, gender and the enforcement of heterosexuality, in J. Holland and L. Adkins (eds) Sex, Sensibility and the Gendered Body, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp 20221, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-24536-9_11

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fielder, A. (2001) Poaching on public space: urban autonomous zones in French Banlieue Films, in M. Shiel and T. Fitzmaurice (eds) Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Oxford: Blackwell, pp 27081.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fogg-Davis, H.G. (2006) Theorizing black lesbians within black feminism: a critique of same-race street harassment, Politics & Gender, 2(1): 5776.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FRA (2017) Second European union minorities and discrimination survey – main results, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Luxembourg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hopkins, P.E. (2006) Youthful Muslim masculinities: gender and generational relations, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 31(3): 33752.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ilahi, N. (2008) You gotta fight for your right(s): Street harassment and its relationship to gendered violence, civil society, and gendered negotiations. Doctoral thesis unpublished. Cairo: The American University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Vintage.

  • Jacobs, M.S. (2017) The violent state: black women’s invisible struggle against police violence, William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, 24(1): 39100.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johnson, A.M. and Miles, R. (2014) Toward more inclusive public spaces: learning from the everyday experiences of Muslim Arab women in New York City, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 46(8): 1892907, https://doi.org/10.1068/a46292

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Karsten, L., Kuiper, E. and Ruebsaet, H. (2001) Van de Straat?: De Relatie Jeugd en Openbare Ruimte Verkend, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Van Gorcum.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence, Oxford: Polity Press.

  • Kinsey, R. (1984) The Merseyside crime survey: first report, Liverpool: Merseyside Metropolitan Council.

  • Knabb, K. (2006) Situationist International Anthology: revised and expanded edition, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.

  • Koskela, H. and Pain, R. (2000) Revisiting fear and place: women’s fear of attack and the built environment, Geoforum, 31(2): 26980.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lynch, K. (1981) A Theory of Good City Form, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Majors, R. and Billson, J. M. (1993) Cool pose: The dilemma of Black manhood in America, New York: Simon and Schuster.

  • Matthews, H., Limb, M. and Percy-Smith, B. (1998) Changing worlds: the microgeographies of young teenagers, Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 89(2): 193202.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mazumdar, S. and Mazumdar, S. (2001) Rethinking public and private space: religion and women in Muslim society, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Merry, S.E. (1984) Rethinking gossip and scandal, in: D. Black (ed.) Toward a General Theory of Social Control: Volume I, Fundamentals., New York: Academic Press, pp 271302.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mohamed, A.A. and Stanek, D. (2019) Street networks, pedestrian movement patterns and sexual harassment, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 3(1), 728. https://doi.org/10.1332/239868019X15475690989380

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Muchembled, R. (1991) De uitvinding van de moderne mens: Collectief gedrag, zeden, gewoonten en gevoelswereld van de middeleeuwen tot de Franse revolutie, Amsterdam: Contact.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Muchembled, R. (2011) A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present, London: Polity.

  • Pain, R.H. (1997) Social geographies of women’s fear of crime, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 22: 23144.

  • Roberts, N.J. (2019) Gender, sexual danger and the everyday management of risks: the social control of young females, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 3(1): 2944. https://doi/10.1332/239868018X15265563342670

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruby, T.F. (2006) Listening to the voices of hijab, Women’s Studies International Forum, 29(1): 5466, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2005.10.006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sidrah, M. (2019) Islamophobic violence as a form of gender-based violence: a qualitative study with Muslim women in Canada, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 3(1): 4566, https://doi.org/10.1332/239868019X15492770695379

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spierings, B., van Melik, R. and van Aalst, I. (2016) Parallel lives on the plaza: Young Dutch women of Turkish and Moroccan descent and their feelings of comfort and control on Rotterdam’s Schouwburgplein, Space and Culture, 19(2): 15063.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • 1 Postdoctoral researcher, KU Leuven, Leuven Institute of Criminology, Belgium and Université de Liège, Centre d’études de l’ethnicité et de migration, , Belgium

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