The Flaneuse – Women in the City

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

“Whether women are seen as a problem of cities, or cities as a problem for women, the relationship remains fraught with difficulty” – Elizabeth Wilson, The Invisible Flaneur (1992) 

Now, here’s a contentious idea. The city has been, for the most part and still continues to be, a predominantly male domain. The 18th century flaneur (or poet explorer) constructed by Baudelaire, held both the city and its women at the end of his gaze. Janet Wolff in her essay, “Feminism and Modernism“, wrote:

“The experience of anonymity in the city, the fleeting, impersonal contacts described by social commentators like Georg Simmel, the possibility of unmolested strolling and observation first seen by Baudelaire, and then analysed by Walter Benjamin were entirely the experiences of men. By the late nineteenth century, middle-class women had been more or less consigned (in ideology if not in reality) to the private sphere. The public world of work, city life, bars, and cafés was barred to the respectable woman . . “

In Baudelaire’s Paris, “the women of the street” participated in the flesh trade, creating the perception of the wandering woman as unvirtuous or loose. According to Wilson, the flaneur himself was a marginal figure, hyped by the poetic gesticulations of authors such as Baudelaire, Benjamin and Simmel. But his “gaze” characterized the male threat to women in the city.

If one were to think about the persistent rhetoric one hears about single adult women, unrestrained by family or law chat,  who “roams around”  even for perfectly legitimate business, one could perhaps attribute the roots of such thought to the “gaze” of the flaneur.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

The flaneur was seen as a free willed figure, who experienced the city as he willed, with no thought to boundaries or division of any kind. His experience was whole, not limited to or any type of space; he was moved by the spectacle that was the city. In contrast to this almost omnipresent privilege was the woman’s relationship to the city. Marsha Meskimmon, in her book “Engendering the City: Women Artist and the Urban Space” talks of the woman as a pedestrian, rather than a flaneur, who is aware of the physical limitation of the space that surrounds her. She writes:

“She is not a disembodied eye like the theoretical flaneur who wanders through the city “invisibly” and untouched, but a sentient participant in the city. She realises boundaries as embodied and refutes the flaneur’s privileged boundary transcendence and Utopia, unified city.”

The pedestrian is more aware of the local space, the communities, the politics of that space, while the flaneur is flighty, seemingly free of anything that might hamper his consumption of the city.

The appropriation of the city by women is seen as a crucial outcome of the feminist movement. And to a large extent, in the West and in certain countries of Asia, this has occured. West of Rome, a multi experiential urban art project, recently hosted an ongoing viral art exhibition focussed on “Women in the City“, which “showcased the art of women in empowered positions”

However, major cities of the world still struggle to balance the safety of women with their rising economic empowerment. In the light of a recent spate of violence against women in India, an organization called “Women in Cities” released a set of videos portraying how women in vulnerable communities were taking responsibility for their own safety. A safety map was created, through dialogue with young girls in the community, which highlighted the most dangerous spots for a girl to visit.  Unfortunately, these included common public places like parks, bus stops and even the communal toilets.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

For true progress and political stability, it is imperative that women have equal access to a city as men. Dubai is possibly the safest place for a woman to live and work. In this article published by the Huffington post, the writer states:

“Dubai allows you to be you. And controversially especially if you are a woman. I’m not the only woman to think that. I feel safer here in Dubai than I do in London or Paris. There is a healthy respect that means you are just left alone, so long as you in turn respect the local values and customs.”

And that is how every city in the world should be!




The flaneur

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In the streets of early nineteenth century Paris, a new figure emerged. Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur. The urban observer, a poet-wanderer, a reporter of everyday street life, an artist, a loiterer, a city dweller who was as Baudelaire describes, “a lover” of  “universal life”.

In his La Pientre de la vie Moderne, he writes:

“the crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (1939), resurrected the flaneur when he wrote:

“For the flaneur, a transformation takes place with respect to the street: it leads him through a vanished time.”

And about the lost art of walking he says:

“An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. WIth each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grows the temptations of the bistros, of shops, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a distant square in the fog, of the back of a woman walking before him.”

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

This romaticism of urban exploration, of bearing passionate witness to movements of city life, of being an almost insatiable observer of the human condition, is an indulgence our techno-economic lives deprive us of. There is an undeniable spiritual characteristic to the existence of the flaneur, which Walter Benjamin called “auratic”. This urban explorer was enveloped in an aura of transcendence; he was almost other worldly.

This idea gets even more interesting when placed in our present context.

One wanders to become familiar. People usually explore their surroundings when they’ve arrived in a new city or when on holiday. There is already a sense of “longing to belong” about wandering. One almost has to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to become a flaneur. So walking and exploring becomes a medium to feel united to the spirit of the city.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

One of our class’s favourite texts, is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” from his infamous Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Equally popular is Virgina Woolfe’s, Street Haunting. (Check out our intervention inspired by both these writers) Both describe “a hunger”, as Benjamin wrote, “to prowl through unknown districts”. Both Poe and Woolfe take to walking as an excuse – the former to satiate his curiousity about a distinct looking man, the latter to buy a pencil. Both evoke images of their cities with magical detail; offering charming spectacle to life on the streets.

To nurture a sense of belonging, one has to lay claim to the city by traversing it on foot. Paths forged in the city, through our imagination and curiosity, create indelible connections in our minds and entwine us in a unique relationship with the city.

Try it. Our Urban Writers are here to help.