how can we overcome our fear of going out into the public space?

Since the announcement of the death of Victorine Darbois, this 18-year-old young woman who had disappeared when she was walking home, many women have seized the networks. They say their pain, but also their fear of walking in public space. How do we come to terms with this overwhelming feeling, which so many of us share?

On September 28, 2020, we learned that it was indeed the body of Victorine Darbois who had been found lifeless in a stream in Villefontaine, in Isère. Only two kilometers separated her from her home and she had announced to her family that she would walk them, after missing her bus. If the causes of his death remain unknown at this stage, the news triggered a legitimate wave of emotion, as well as many testimonies on social networks. Young women tell about their fear of moving away from home, as well as their individual strategies to reassure themselves. Some of these posts reached tens of thousands of likes and replies confirming the feeling of fear.

It must be said that we necessarily recognize ourselves in these testimonies. What woman has never quickened the pace, at night, in the corridors of the metro, or felt a surge of anxiety in a deserted parking lot, or even, pretends to be on the phone with a friend when coming home after 10pm? But while the feeling of fear is real, the facts show a different reality. According to a survey published in the journal Economics and statistics of INSEE, women victims of physical violence know their attacker in 62% of cases, and those of sexual assault in 70% of cases. We also know that the majority of feminicides are mainly responsible for spouses or ex-spouses, the home statistically becoming the most dangerous place for women. The visceral fear of the unknown killer, who surprises his victim in the middle of the street, is therefore based more on stereotypes than on concrete data. But should we tell the girls to stop freaking out, or even give them lessons in "serenity in the public space"? Obviously, no. The answer is political, in the broad sense of the term.

Designing spaces that reassure women

For Claire Doussard, teacher at the Special School of Architecture and researcher associated with the UMR Ausser of the CNRS, it is obvious: our relationship to public space is based on a large part of feelings. "The main difference will be between day and night, she explains. We do not perceive the street, the bus or a parking lot in the same way depending on the time of day. Other factors will affect our sense of security. In transportation, studies show that women need lighting to feel better. The general atmosphere, the number of people around them, the colors and even the presence of security cameras will also have a positive impact on how they feel. "

In order for us to be comfortable away from home, the policies for organizing space must therefore take into account our stress factors. A successful example, according to Claire Doussard: the Châtelet-Les Halles metro and RER station in Paris. Large, very bright, with wide platforms and corridors, it gives the feeling of being safer than the small winding stations of the Capital. So why are these types of arrangements, which do not seem so complicated to set up, not installed everywhere? For the teacher-researcher, it is because "Space is, even today, thought of through the prism of a healthy white man", without taking into account disabled people, who manage strollers or who are victims of racist attacks (we think of black women who see their hair touched by strangers on the bus or in the street). Geographical specificities are not sufficiently taken into account either, whereas a city dweller will not experience the same reality as a woman living in a peri-urban environment or in the countryside.

The solution ? Urban planning must take an immediate interest in gender issues, identities and discrimination, an approach that exists, but remains relatively young. And that does not always please schools training future experts or decision-making institutions (municipalities, communities of agglomerations …), reluctant to question antediluvian practices.

What if we degenerate space?

The startling accounts of recent days show it: town planning must change paradigm. But for Caroline Gerber, consultant on organizational transformation issues, this is not enough. "Yes, we can improve the feelings of women so that they are less afraid in certain places, she explains. But we can see that this fear of women is based more on cultural patterns than on facts, and that is what we must change. We are taught from childhood that public space belongs to men. We are educated in the perspective that the street is not our place. This is what generates fear ". The best example of this gendered division of public space? Probably the schoolyards, where the soccer field takes up most of the space and remains squatted by boys, while girls occupy the corners. As for the activities practiced there, they allow boys to explore and appropriate the space (ball games, running …), while "girls'" games are practiced in restricted areas, intimate (sandbox, elastic…). We should therefore degenerate the space in the long term, so that we all have the feeling that it belongs to us, and that we are at home as much as at home. A challenge according to Caroline Gerber, because "The current functioning is as registered in us. We are talking about the transformation of society in a long time, even if things are moving". By publicly evoking their fear, women are already making it possible to shed light on their reality. It remains to come back to the current division of space, which too often keeps us at home.

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