Margarida Queirós is an associate professor at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning (IGOT) and an effective researcher at the Centre for Geographical Studies (CEG), where she conducts research on gender equality, environment and spatial planning issues investigação sobre temas da igualdade de género, ambiente e ordenamento do território.
The eloquence with which she defends what she believes in is proportional to the assertive tone of her voice and the rebelliousness of her hair. Bluntly, she speaks out what she thinks. We like her not because she is ground-breaking, but because she goes "straight to the point" and says what many times no one has the courage to point out. We were definitely won over when she defended the urgency of making people more aware of gender inequality and equity, associated with our cities and society, at the “I AM…ME” conference, an initiative organised by the Student Support Office (GAE) and the Department of Public and Sexual Health of the AEFML.
Throughout the discussion she led, there were many sentences that became soundbites and gained echo in our conscience: “Fear was naturalized by women”, “Labels have the power to discriminate against some people and the power to privilege others”, “Our cities are patriarchal”. All this culminated in a desire to speak to this woman who is not afraid to rub salt into the wound and stand out for her ability to identify inequalities and start an “armed struggle” against them.
When we asked her for an interview, we feared an abrupt reply, because with the recent death of British citizen Sarah Everard, reflecting a wave of violence and insecurity about women on the streets, we were afraid that she would see this invitation as a mere “politically correct” attempt on our part on this topic, but she was totally receptive. And we thank you for that!
In Portugal, what are the most striking (gender) inequalities in our society?
MQ: I could say income inequalities between the 10% of the richest people and the 10% of the poorest people in our country. However, I am being asked the question for this purpose, it is with regard to gender inequalities.
If we look at the Gender Equality Index published by the EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality) for the EU context, in 2019, Portugal ranked 16th (59.9 out of 100 points, corresponding to 1 to total inequality and 100 to full equality). Our country, compared to 2005, increased by 10 points, revealing that we are making progress towards gender equality in the context of member states.
This is an index that reveals trends in the field of gender equality (central domains: work, time, income, politics/power, knowledge, health) in Europe. This index is then complemented with information on experiences of violence against women (prevalence, severity), and on intersecting inequalities between different groups of women and men (age, type of family, level of education, in/capacity, country of origin).
However, Portugal's scores are lower than those of the EU, in all domains. Gender inequalities are more pronounced in the domains of power (46.7 points) and the use of time (47.5 points). There are good news in the health domain, where Portugal reaches its highest score (84.5 points).
And how do we fight these inequalities?
MQ: For me, and I emphasize that it is my point of view, inequalities are combated on several fronts, with different types of public policies, but the one that I find more important is education and knowledge. There are major gender inequalities in access to education, both in terms of learning skills and education continuity, most often at the expense of girls and young women. Access to education, knowledge and participation, all are fundamental to the skills (empowerment) of women, so that they can, in fact, have opportunities in life and transform themselves.
Poverty, school dropout, social status, disability, early marriage and premature pregnancy, gender violence, attitudes and stereotypes about the role of women, alone or in combination, are among the many obstacles that prevent them from fully exercising their citizenship right, to participate in, complete and benefit from education.
I believe that education is a public good and a fundamental right. As such, education policies must be sensitive to gender inequalities. We can fight to overcome these inequalities through public policies that ensure equitable education and opportunities for lifelong learning.
Especially girls, young women and women must attain relevant levels of literacy, functional proficiency and life autonomy. In the current context, information and communication technologies must be harnessed to strengthen their skills, as digitization cannot continue to take place without the participation of women.
In your opinion, when it comes to public policies for gender equality, do you consider that we are following the international commitments, namely the European Union and the United Nations? Shouldn't we plan and implement them more autonomously?
MQ: As I mentioned in the “I am… me” event, in Portugal, gender equality policies are largely stimulated by the guidelines of international bodies (e.g., European Union; Council of Europe; CPLP; United Nations). Despite the fact that gender equality is included in documents as old as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948), its implementation in national policies is recent and results largely from the opening of Portuguese society after 1974.
Today its main external lever is still the EU, which: 1) published guidelines that have been transposed into national legislation, 2) promotes the establishment of transnational networks, and 3) finances projects on equal pay, equality and employment and prevention and combating violence, etc. Portugal participates in these constructions.
This does not mean that Portugal “is piggy backing on” the EU or even that this is a negative point. It happens that, on the one hand, we live in the “era of globalization”, in an interdependent and integrated world operating in a network with the rest of the world (the information society), where intense exchanges of knowledge take place, so we are permeable to global agendas and we agree to international commitments in the field of equality. On the other hand, Portugal is part of the regional bloc of the European Union. Thus, it is desirable that we have common policies, that countries can build bridges and converge in the direction of equality as a human right to be guaranteed by the institutions that we have created for this purpose.
Globalization marks the internal life of our country and we can derive benefits from it. I would say that, in the context of a global and regional world, with “contamination” and good examples of political agendas, principles and objectives, these are very positive stimuli, and the benefits are great for the promotion of gender equality, and we cannot waste them.
Naturally, based on common designs and international commitments, we trace our path in an autonomous way (but which is in line with the problems we share in the EU and in the world), as our internal public policies for equality have been intensifying to deepen and intertwine (see the National Plans for Equality and the current National Strategy for Equality and Non-Discrimination, ENIND).
And this is happening both at country level and at local and regional level, with the “territorialisation” of public policies for equality, as I tried to show in the webinar "I AM..ME". The structured responses in support of gender equality deepen the network with national, regional and local public and private entities, and allow flexible, fast and effective responses and for the problems of the territories where they occur. These regional/local networks form models of territorial governance of integrated response.
What moved you to study gender inequalities and to associate them with urban planning?
MQ: I am a geographer by training, so space and place are the areas where I move best. And space and place can begin with bodies (the presentation of the body, gestures, language, facial expressions, for example). In them, power, unequal and hierarchical relationships are reflected (and not merely symmetrical and complementary dichotomies and relations, as traditionally they tried to convince us). Gender relations are historically and spatially contingent. The meaning of being a man or woman depends on a context, relational and variable, although subject to the laws and regulations, of each time and space, which establish what is allowed and what is a transgressive act. And the idea of conceptualizing gender as something fluid, frees gender from the imperatives of the body. And it is this type of deconstruction that feminist geographers began to debate in the 1980s. Geographical issues, such as the person's place and position, especially those that have been marginalized and ignored, have started to be heard and interpreted. These people, above all, diverse women, live in cities, in urban and suburban areas, daily lives with more or less opportunities - for meetings and daily activities, where they contact other people, in public spaces or in residential areas, experiencing urban life.
How does the current design of cities condition the freedom of people, more specifically of some minorities (women, homosexuals, people with cognitive or motor impairments)?
MQ: As I mentioned, gender relations are constitutive of material and physical spaces, as well as symbolic and discursive spaces. In other words, where we are going, how we get there and our presence in certain places, all of this is influenced and has an impact on our social identity. The dimensions (markers) of social identity, such as gender, social status, sexuality, age, and race are rooted in unequal and historically constructed power relations, which favour some people and marginalize others.
These identities raise important questions about how sexuality, race, class and other axes of power are formative aspects of who we are, what we believe in and value. Furthermore, certain social identities guarantee people privileged positions in the places they occupy, for example, at work, in education, in political activities, or in the places they inhabit and go to.
Urban life is full of inequalities, especially for women (and these are not even a homogeneous group), but also for men who do not fit the straight model. For example, homosexual men experience urban neighbourhoods differently from straight men, they have experiences based on their sexuality and on the predominance of heteronormative areas in the city. In these situations, the dominant social norms exclude those people who do not identify themselves as heterosexuals. In contrast, certain urban spaces are described and represented as gay spaces, such as the Castro Area in San Francisco (US). These neighbourhoods are inclusive and provide spaces for commercial, cultural and residential activity for the LGBT community.
Residential areas and domestic spaces are also traditionally based on the male-female binary balance of gender relations. Patriarchal norms or conventions associated with the home, label domestic spaces as being feminized. As a result, gender relations contributed to the social construction of the home as “the place of women”. Criticism of this classification interpret the house as the place of restriction and repression, precisely because they reproduce patriarchal norms and social relations.
These are some reasons that lead us to study the complexity of the home as a place of multiple experiences and expressions, as a safe place, a place for family and comfort, but also a place of insecurity, oppression and violence.
In democratic societies, public spaces (a set of multiple and differentiated areas where public life occurs) are expected to be important because, in theory, they provide space for us “to stand and be”. In practice, however, they have been spaces of exclusion, which limit the presence of women, ethnic minorities, people of colour, LGBT, poor, elderly and children and people with disabilities. In practice, these spaces are masculine and heteronormative, preventing full access, participation and the sense of belonging of women and minorities.
Discussions about space, territory and place raise important questions regarding public and private space. The divisions between the two are the result of constructions and experiences and are more fluid and contested than we suppose. Some people and their practices fit in with them and others do not. With regard to people with certain disabilities: it is a world of almost exclusion. The theme is so vast that you would need a lot of pages to take down what I have to say…
What should the ideal city be like - one that would prevent these minorities from feeling marginalized?
M.Q: I begin by making a clarification: the (diverse) group of women is not a minority, although it is treated as such.
The ideal city does not exist, despite multiple attempts to build it. And as far as I am aware, there are not many city proposals that have gender equality in their genesis. I remember, in particular, a vision by Dolores Hayden who wrote, in 1980, the essay “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?”
Hayden suggests that city planners took it for granted that the woman's place would be at home. She argues that the isolated and suburban family home had been designed for the woman in the role of housewife and caregiver and as a retreat for the male breadwinner, whose work was located in the city (the Mad Men series illustrates this reality well. North American cities for men, and suburbs for women and family). This generated a built environment that shaped the idea of how a “normal family” should use the space. With an increasing number of women entering the (paid) labour market and the size of families decreasing, Hayden saw the design of the city - and the family home - as having the potential to create more egalitarian relationships.
About 40 years later, we have this reality: fewer and fewer children, more people live alone, and among them there are women, single mothers, and more and more women have paid employment...
In addition to the obvious differences between the United States and Europe, does the city project still trap women in the suburbs and expect them to do most of the housework and care? Obviously not, and a lot has been done, we are much closer to gender equality in cities, but still a long way from achieving it.
To begin with, the faces and names of the people who lead urban planning have to change, as women in this field are growing in number and claim their recognition in the profession. The experiences of everyday life must be represented among the people who make the decisions so that real changes in the urban fabric improve their quality of life. Where to find a day care centre, what are the distances from home to public transport stops, lower housing rents, more lighting, more shared public spaces, community inclusion spaces, etc. There are still many movements claiming the right to the city.
In Barcelona, Colletiu Punt 6 has done a remarkable work based on feminist urban planning that critiques the false idea that the city is neutral, contributing largely to rethinking the alternative city to the city designed based on the home-work binary.
What will the city be like from the perspective of those who really live it in their daily lives, from the people who walk around the city, who think of alternatives to organize care and paid work, in a transformative perspective? They don't all have to be planners, quite the contrary. The experiences of migrants, racialized communities, elderly people, among so many others who experience the unfair city, must be at the centre of the proposals, be active actors in making the city. Today's city can no longer be thought based on a family and division of labour typology as it was in the past. Friendship, brotherhood (“sorority”), physical protection, contact, and movement, but also permanence, must guide the “city of possibilities”.
Sorry, but a doubt persists: If we look at today's cities, can we say that they are all patriarchal (sexist) and heteronormative? Is there a city that does not follow this trend?
MQ: I don't think so. But we can point out parts of today's cities that seek to escape heteronormativity, like some of the more well-known neighbourhoods: Soho in London, Castro in San Francisco, West Village in New York, Amstel in Amsterdam, Le Marais in Paris, Bairro Alto in Lisbon, are examples of this. And there are other good examples. Take the case of Vienna, where three housing units of social interest, promoted by the city's Gender Department (Women's Office), the so-called Frauen-Werk-Stadt I, II and III and In der Wiesen Generation Housing, were designed based on the idea that the home is more than a physical shelter (a criticism of the monofunctional approach), based on the following question: what would a district look like from a women's perspective?
“Fear was naturalized by women” – You said it during your presentation at the I AM… ME conference. As a woman, have you ever feel that your safety was threatened on the street?
MQ: In women, fear sets in from an early age. The spaces associated with our home are traditionally considered to be safe. But it is statistically demonstrated that the majority of violence against women occurs at home and is a crime perpetrated by people they know. During our lifetime, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men were or will be victims of physical violence from an intimate partner.
On the other hand, public spaces are often perceived as open, accessible and unregulated. However, many public areas have surveillance and policing that restricts mobility and freedom of expression. In this case, some people and their practices fit and others do not.
Let's look at the city of fear. Since I was a child, I remember being warned about the “stranger danger” spectrum: never talk to a stranger, never say that you are alone at home, do not accept gifts from a stranger - the figure of the predator has plagued women since kids.
In reality, despite these warnings, I became aware of my vulnerability not when I was a child, but when I became a teenager and suffered several episodes of harassment. I lived all my childhood and youth in a medium-sized city (Coimbra), and did the daily commute from home to school alone, or accompanied by my older brothers. And I remember that my sense of freedom was total with them, who, according to my parents, protected me, less when accompanied by friends, and null when I was alone.
In this case, I was much more careful in my goings about, especially when it started to get dark. When I was with my friends, back at university, we had strategies to fight the dangers that we then knew were real and not abstract: not being alone late at night with male colleagues, especially on academic party nights, and having a plan for individual safety. Of course, some of them, who are my friends even today, replaced my brothers in the role of "my protectors".
And I have no words to describe the messages that girls and women receive about their bodies, clothes, hair, makeup, weight, hygiene and appropriate behaviour (how we sit, talk, walk, etc.).
When we really understand all these codes, we realize that girls and women are vulnerable due to gender, and sexual development will show us how that danger becomes real.
Socialization is so powerful and profound that the fear that women feel has an “innate” attribution, it is naturalized. And this fear has been studied by many scientific areas, from anthropology to biology. Several surveys show that women identify the city, the night and strange men as the greatest sources of threat. I did and I am still part of that number. However, there is sufficient data to demonstrate that women are much more vulnerable and have experienced violence at the hands of well-known men and in private spaces, such as the home and the workplace. This contradiction is known as the “women’s fear paradox”, identified with an irrational fear because it is not explained by scientific evidence.
This makes us think about the stereotype: what is wrong with them? They are irrational, they don't understand each other! A broader analysis shows, however, that the power, patriarchy and trauma of the “women's fear paradox” is only paradoxical through the lens (of bad science) that ignores the processes of socialization and gendered power relations. The family, the school and also the media, report much more the violent crimes of strangers and much less the violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. Cinema, books and television too.
So the paradox is explained by a complex set of variables (called patriarchy, which is structural), and the idea that “my rape is behind me somewhere in the shade in the street” has been chasing women. In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, and abuse of children and other crimes in private, are more prevalent and have historically received less attention. Instead of looking for the internal cause of the paradox, it is much more satisfying to look for external causes that are structural, and translate into systems and institutions, which reproduce the status quo, that is, they benefit men as a group.
And where does space and city come into all this? Social control takes place in the city. We can map the city of fear, neighbourhoods and streets, gardens and public places: places to avoid. This idea is real, experienced and also built, because it exercises control over the public space, and the private one can be much more dangerous. The pandemic times seem to confirm this finding.
Fear has its costs: it prevents women from free access to the city, to what it can offer, as an option and opportunity and, therefore, from independent and free lives. These costs are also economical, because it prevents them from having the same opportunities, access to evening courses or certain professions, and restricts mobility, as women (emigrants, blacks, young people, etc.) walk more than men and are the most major users of public transport.
I believe that the woman's place is in the city, because the city is also creativity, anonymity, freedom. I believe and hope that our conversation can bring to the broader discussion what city life is from a gender perspective, so that we can find ways to take action and make the city in a different way.
Note: Professor Margarida Queirós' reflections are inspired by Linda Mc Dowell, Leslie Kern, Ann Oberhauser, Zaida Muxí, Inés de Madariaga, Gilian Rose, and Doreen Massey, among other academics who have contributed so much to the development of feminist studies.