The effect of perception of safety on mobility amongst women in Leiden and Birmingham extended to a theory on the visual understanding of intersectionality
Lotte Sikkema (Leiden University), Rosanna Walsh (University of Birmingham)
In a way, our living room reflects the variety of the people that live in it. On the one hand, there’s a neatly cleaned table, with an opened laptop and notebook on it. On the other hand, there’s a pile of dishes on the kitchen counter that’s gotten so high that it would take only a tiny little fly to bump into it, for it to all tumble down. The posters on the walls promote to vote left, but also right, they show baby pictures, and pictures that could have been pulled from Playboy.
It is a Tuesday evening. A Dutch winter, so even though it is not that late, it is already dark outside. I have just cooked dinner, a student classic: pasta with green pesto. The living room is already filled with people. One of my best friends, sitting next to me, complains about the Dutch train system, whose ten-minute delay almost got her to be too late in Utrecht, where she’s studying.
The door swings open as another roommate comes in. She’s small in posture, but not in presence. She throws her backpack on the floor and takes off her North Face jacket – which she had gotten for her 4-month trip to Nepal, but now uses as a winter coat. She gets herself some food while talking about how terrible her trip home from work was. She had to bike for half an hour, through a rough neighbourhood, where she almost got hit by fireworks thrown by young boys. Usually, she does not really mind the ride. Yes, she has to bike for half an hour, but she likes the exercise. Also, the neighbourhoods she passes, the tunnels and the dark; they do not really bother her. But these kids throwing fireworks? Damn, that’s annoying.
The door opens again, quietly this time, as another roommate enters. She also just came from work. As always, her outfit is styled down to the last detail – she’s wearing a vintage pair of black jeans and a long brown-leathered coat. Her cheeks are a bit flushed and her brown, curly hair entangled by the wind. She sits down at the table, and I make sure she gets some food. I ask her whether she’s okay: she looks a tad haggard. Yes, she just cycled home very quickly, because she did not like the dark. It was only a ten minute ride, but, you know, it was very dark and there were trees all around, so she could not see what
was happening around her.
Different perceptions on safety
For young women to move around in Leiden is relatively safe and accessible. Trains ride almost 24 hours per day between all cities and almost every village. They are also free for students. In their hometowns, women can travel by foot, but they are more likely to take their bicycles. Accidents occur and are terrible, but through the dense interconnection of students via social media, young women are alarmed immediately when something happens, then are discouraged to leave their homes alone. In this way,
women’s mobility, and more specifically, the feeling of safety when travelling, is barely
restricted by factors such as money, race, sexuality, et cetera.
However, mobility does vary per person. My first roommate was restricted by the Dutch transportation network, however, she did not have to worry about safety. My second roommate could move around freely, but had to worry about physical safety. My third roommate was not necessarily in danger, yet felt as though she had to worry about physical safety. This shows how different personality traits can influence the ability to move around, and thus influence mobility both positively and negatively. I can imagine that this influence can be extended to previous exposure to harassment, either physically, mentally, or sexually. As, in Leiden, less harassment incidents occur amongst men, there is less reason for men to feel unsafe when roaming the streets. This leads me to believe that being a female and having a certain personality type or experience intersect to lead to worse mobility outcomes.
Nevertheless, this influence is not always visible. As my first roommate did not come across any situations that could be experienced as unsafe, it would barely have mattered what personality type or experiences she had. This idea of an order in intersectionality is further discussed in the conclusion.
The influence of experience on perception of safety
The second part of this blog reflects a similar experience in a suburban, student-dense suburb of Birmingham. This blog follows the differing perceptions of safety amongst students in a flat above a prime, post night-out, chicken shop. 3 friends live in a modest flat which is entered via a stairwell
down a questionable alley. The flat is typically student: poorly built, stained from previous years of student shenanigans, yet has been lavished with decoration from drunken memorabilia to add a warm, familiar, homely detail.
On a Monday night, not the typical party night, but one standard in this area, the flatmates reconvene for their daily debrief before the nighttime antics begin. They each recite their highlights and equally as important, the worst parts of the day. Each has the same commute, the same long day of studying and the same exercise routines, but each recollection tells a different tale.
The conversation begins as the last flatmate enters, a colossal bag on back. Much like how a tortoise carries their home everywhere, she carries all her unnecessary possessions. She enters, flustered by the day had. A clumsy personality, one that can be easily shaken. Standing maladroitly, smile on face, just relieved to be home away from the chaos of the outside she gleefully begins to tell her story of the pleasant potter home. One that strongly differs from the harassment characterising yesterday’s
commute. She got into a bad phase of involuntarily having interactions with unpleasant people on her commutes. Although no physical harm was had, it was always strongly off-putting, consequently, tended to negatively impacted her day. Now, she rings her “mam” every walk home. She questions whether her mam’s voice is comforting or whether having headphones in makes her blissfully unaware of her unpleasant surroundings.
Our friend chimes in that all she needs to do to evade attention is to put on your best “resting b***h face”. A strange term, but one that claims to remove her natural, welcoming aura. She continues, that this will inform any troublesome passers-by to “do one”, or based on the Brummie area code, “0121-do-one”. She further claims her neutral face, headphones in and masculine tracksuit-based outfit is why she never gets any male attention, both wanted and unwanted.
The dense student demographic makes the area relatively safe, although there are still wrong doers, the sheer volume of “normal” people creates a natural surveillance, almost a form of protection. Although safety affects mobility, the perception of safety that is felt based on past experiences and personal confidence is an equal contributor. As identified, a ‘not give a monkey’s’ attitude can immensely impact a person’s day-to-day journey, however this is entirely personality based.
1hr later when the final friend entered, she exclaimed her relief when we unlocked the door quickly. Oh, how the darkness and the “chicken chaps” from the shop below, in the alley were intimidating. “I need a drink”. In sync, the flat replied “oh Darius and Femi, no no, they’re lovely”. The differing perceptions of the hoard of men, sorting deliveries, down the dark alley show a clear distinction between the impact of perception of safety based on experience. The friend, new to the flat, sensibly took caution when
approaching the flat’s steps. Whereas those that know the men, have engaged in hundreds of conversations, been helped countless times with their knowledge behind a broken washing machine, saw them as a symbol of safety in an otherwise daunting circumstance.
All three tales show a vivid distinction in past experience and the perception of safety when discussing mobility. It is a very real intersectionality, yet one that is characterised and impacted strongly by personality. The second and first flatmates had a polar opposite approach, which led to the more perhaps, vigilant one feeling safer.
Comfortably in line with the topic of this blog – mobility and transport intersectionality as a concept is often explained by comparing it to a crossroads. One identity aspect – or road – can cause marginalisation, but when two of these roads intersect, the outcome can become even worse. Identity is composed of different roads, which come together and lead to certain outcomes.
Here, we’d like to propose the idea that these crossroads are not solely internal. Yes, one is born with a certain set of roads (being a female and queer), yet, where these roads lay geographically, influences the depth of the outcome (in Leiden, being a lesbian might not be an indicator for bad outcomes in safety, whereas in Dakar it might be). Here, we found the exact opposite to also be true: a similar experience of biking through the dark in Leiden provoked a different response in two different women.
Also, over the course of one’s lifespan, one can be more comfortable using one road than the other, which can metaphorically turn an unpaved road into a paved one, giving a person the ability to turn an identity aspect that would be seen as a bad indicator into a source of power. This can happen the other way around as well, when harassment incidents force a person to feel uncomfortable with certain identity aspects, as seen in our Birmingham results.
In other words: outcomes such as worsened mobility are not only determined by intersecting identity aspects, but are also subject to differences between geolocations and personal growth and experience over time. Some people will have to pass certain crossroads which others do not even come across in their lifetime. In other cases, people come across the same crossroads, but experience them differently.
With that, we would like to -ironically- extend the visualisation of intersectionality as a crossroads to just roads.
N.B. This theory on intersectionality was formed partially using the results of Simon, Margaret and Imane. We recommend reading their article as well.
About the authors
Lotte Sikkema is a Master’s student in Biomedical Sciences at Leiden University, The Netherlands
Rosanna Walsh is a Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Birmingham, UK