Feminist Protocols: Auditing Urban Infrastructures and Reporting Gender Violence in the City

Montreal’s McGill Students for Feminisms’ participation in the "Stop Telling Women to Smile" International Wheat Pasting Night project, April 12, 2019 (on Avenue des Pins by Mont Royal Parc). Image from: http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/Around-the-World
Carrie Rentschler on feminist and anti-racist practices in the porous urban spaces and surfaces of chalking, graffiti, and postering
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I have been thinking about how the notion of feminism as a set of practices one does with others takes on different meaning as it gets re-articulated to different spaces and purposes.1see Carrie Rentschler, “Making Culture  and Doing Feminism” in Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Feminism, New York: Routledge, co-edited by Tasha Oren and Andrea Press (2019), 127-147. If feminism represents ways of doing things, then examining how feminists model and enact feminist action can reveal key ideas about—and practices of–social change. While so much social change is still imagined in overly spectacular and highly visual forms, many anti-violence activists approach social change as a matter of changing how people do things, often in ways that fly under the radar. They establish new routines and protocols for speaking and behaving in less violent, dominating, and oppressive ways, by making small changes to how we speak and act. Such changes to habitual ways of doing things are often hard to see. They don’t stand out as major examples of social change, in part because they are not easily dramatized or captured in scintillating audio-visual detail. They don’t often look like social change is supposed to look, especially when they focus on developing new habits of action. 

Figure 1: Street messaging about fossil fuel divestment in the age of mobile phones. Montreal, QC, August 29, 2019. Photo by Carrie Rentschler.

This piece examines a set of feminist protocols for responding to the harassment, threats and violence people experience in their movement through key portals in the city such as subways, sidewalks, bathrooms, stairwells, garbage rooms, and other spaces. By feminist protocols, I refer to feminist Science & Technology Studies scholar Michelle Murphy’s definition of the “standardizable and transmissible components of feminist practices” that transform how something is done in feminist ways.2Murphy analyzed how the 1970s US women’s health movement developed feminist protocols for conducting self-examinations. See Michelle Murphy, Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012, 29  Women’s safety audits gather data from people’s experiences while moving through city streets, sidewalks, and community spaces, assessing the ways people develop habits in their use of physical spaces around issues of safety.  Feminist chalk writing and postering in areas where people have been harassed and assaulted represent another kind of feminist intervention that interrupts forms of habituated violence and ways of responding to them in the built environment. The kinds of social change work we see happening around these practices are pedagogical. They target what Carolyn Pedwell calls the “material processes of habituation,” transforming, ideally, the ways in which people relate to each other along key sites of transit.3Carolyn Pedwell, “Mediated Habits: Images, Networked Affect and Social Change,” Subjectivity, 2017, 10:2, 151.

These are practices that get “manualized,” as my friend and research collaborator Shanly Dixon puts it. They are written down in ways that are meant to be shared through back channels, grey literature modes of distribution, and personal social networks; they are exchanged in coffee shops, bookstores, music venues, libraries, and of course online in a variety of “toolkits,” memes, hashtags, and threaded conversations. By targeting the routine “organizing patterns through which sexism is communicated in interaction” – what Octavia Calder-Dawe names the “everyday choreographies of sexism”4Octavia Calder-Dawe, “The Choreography of Everyday Sexism: Reworking Sexism in Interaction,” New Formations, 2015, 86, 89-109.safety audits, and other often small-scale feminist acts of witnessing in the city, choreograph ways of assessing and intervening into sexualized, gendered and racialized violence and script activist responses to them.  These interventions are porous. They offer “ways of doing things without strict rules” to follow; they are open to feminist revision and re-use.5see Imke Mumm, “About Legal Frameworks, Basic Politics, and Tactics” in Sophie Wolfrum, ed. Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda. Walter de Gruyter, 2018, 152-153. Across these practicessocial change might best be conceived of as a series of small interactions that create, as Adrienne Marie Brown argues, not “critical mass but critical connections” with others.6See Adrienne Marie Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017. Those “critical” connections can then be scaled up from their local iterations through online networks to be replicated across activist sites. 

The Feminist Protocols of Women’s Safety Audits

Women’s Safety Audits, or WSAs, provide standards of practice for auditing the built environment according to people’s assessments of their experiences as they use and move through the space.  Safety audits pay particular attention to key infrastructural features of the built environment, such as lighting, signage, and walkways. They draw on intersectional feminist criteria for defining safety in terms that account for multiple forms of oppression, as well as basic principles of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, a framework that approaches the built environment as an agent in both the production of safety, and the creation of vulnerabilities.7see Carrie Rentschler, “Designing Fear: How Environmental Security Protects Property at the Expense of People.” In Foucault, Cultural Studies and Governmentality, eds. Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer and Cameron McCarthy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003, pp. 243-272.

Drawing from Ara Wilson’s (2016) concept of intimate infrastructures, I approach women’s safety audits as embodied feminist infrastructural protocols.8Ara Wilson, “The Infrastructure of Intimacy,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2016, 41:2, 247-28. Rather than seeing infrastructure as unchangeable physical materials, according to Michelle Murphy, “what is included in an infrastructure is an open question” and “what relationships are seen as making up a built ecology is contestable”9Michelle Murphy, “Chemical Infrastructures of the St Clair River” in Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945, edited by Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013, 104. Infrastructures are “the spatial arrangements of relationships that draw humans, things, words and non-humans into patterned conjunctures”10Murphy 2013, 104. For Wilson, the study of infrastructure asks not only the question of “what something requires to function”11Wilson 2016, 249, but also what kinds of infrastructural conditions create an “embedding environment for intimate life.”12Wilson 2016, 274 Analyzing infrastructure through “complex, non-reductive understandings of materiality” in the context of intimate social relationality, Wilson examines how public toilets and communication infrastructures represent spaces of contestation over what gendered and sexual social intimacy is and can be.13Wilson 2016, 249  

Based in what have become standardized tools for evaluating the social infrastructures of gendered safety, the Women’s Safety Audit offers “a method to evaluate the environment from the standpoint of those who feel vulnerable and to make changes that reduce opportunities for assault.”14METRAC “Women’s Campus Safety Audit,” Toronto, 1989, 9. Metro Toronto Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children (or METRAC) created one of the first “Women’s Safety Audits” in 1989 for use on university campuses. A 1992 short video, “Safer for Women…Safer for Everyone,” helped to articulate the feminist philosophy of the women’s safety audit: that if designers and urban planners took different women’s experiences of safety into account when building and managing social space, those spaces would in turn be safer for everyone. The video’s address to campus communities connects campus efforts by young university feminists with a broader community network of anti-violence advocates and educators, right at a time when issues of sexual assault on university campuses were the subject of intense social movement organizing and policy making, as they are again now.

Figure 2: Screenshot taken from 1992 video “Safer for Women…Safer for Everyone”. Accessed on Youtube at: https://youtu.be/ZsWzIG_wg-Y

Audits are organized around what Women in Cities International refers to as “principles of design from a women’s point of view.”15Women in Cities International, 2010, p. 8. The basic principle of a WSA is that “the users of a space are the experts and thus have the knowledge to find solutions to the problems they face.”16Renagh O’Leary and Kalpana Viswanath, Building Safe and Inclusive Cities for Women: A Practical GuideNew Delhi, India: Jagori, 2011, p. 48 Audits centre users’ knowledge of social spaces and what they have experienced — and witnessed from others — about the physical spaces in which they live, work, and move. To start, “the women collectively identify an area where they do not feel safe and decide on a schedule and itinerary for doing the audit.” The audit walk is meant to enable participants to “evaluate feelings of insecurity by identifying the elements in specific spaces within a city that enhance or reduce sense of safety among users of those spaces.”17Women in Cities International 2010, 8. Audits have been developed around experiences of old age, disability, poverty, sexuality, racialization, the needs of indigenous communities, and queer and gender non-conforming people. 

The process of organizing a WSA is well-defined and incorporates principles of women-centred design. In 2007, the UN reported that women’s safety audits are the most frequently used international tool for assessing women’s safety in culturally specific and comparative terms.18Women in Cities International, Women’s Safety Audits: What Works and Where? Nairobi, Kenya: UN-HABITAT, 2008. A handbook jointly created by Jagori, an anti-violence women’s organization in New Delhi, India and Women in Cities International in Montreal, Canada, describes 6 key urban design principles that centre intersectional feminist frameworks of analysis: 

• sensitivity to the intersection of identities and the needs of diverse women

• inclusion of women and girls as agents in the decisions that affect their own safety

• recognition of the value of knowledge generated from girls and women’s lived experiences

• focus on both actual and perceived senses of safety; violence and the fear of violence

• integration of gender-sensitive perspectives into urban design and planning and recognition of the gendered impact(s) of interventions 

• involvement of key stakeholders, community members, men and boys 19see O’Leary and Viswanath 2011, 10

Using these principles, WSAs model what they call Rapid Situational Analysis (RSA): ways of making quick assessments of the built environment, the relationships it supports and does not support, and the conditions and activities enacted in a space that increase some people’s vulnerabilities to harm and violence. 

The RSA is the first step in identifying gender gaps in the provision of essential services by asking questions such as: Have women’s needs been taken into account in the design and provision of these services? If so, how? If not, how could they be taken into account? Gender gaps can be identified by asking questions such as: Are there more toilets for men than for women? Have specific needs of women been taken into account? For example, is there a provision for bins for menstrual waste in the women’s toilet blocks? Do the toilet complexes ensure privacy for women? 20Jagori 2010a, 23 In a guide developed for the conduct of Women’s Safety Audits in low-income communities, RSA is directed at infrastructural systems and their juncture points around water access, toilet complexes, garbage disposal, drainage, and power supplies (Jagori 2010a, 20-22): spaces in which social interactions have been identified by community participants as being fear-inspiring or threatening.

Women’s safety audits assess the roles physical infrastructures play in shaping social relationships in the built environment, producing modes of interpretation, evaluation and recommendation for changes to the design and management of key conduits of movement and spaces of social gathering. As a particular kind of feminist protocol, “a Women’s Safety Audit (WSA) is a participatory tool that is used for collecting and assessing information about perceptions of safety in public spaces. It is a process that brings people together to walk through a physical environment, evaluate how safe it feels and identify ways to make it safer.”21Jagori 2010b cited in Jagori 2010a, 37.

Paying Feminist Witness to, and in, the City 

For Leslie Kern, urban space has direct feminist significance: “the city,” she argues, “is the place to be heard; it’s also the place we’re fighting for. Fighting to belong, to be safe, to earn a living, to represent our communities, and so much more.”22Leslie Kern. Feminist City: A Field Guide. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines. 2019, 118. Kern reminds us that “physical spaces like cities matter when we want to think about social change.”23Kern 2019, 14, emphasis in original. In this piece, I’ve so far been arguing that we should pay attention to the feminist protocols people have developed to “excavat[e] the various dispositions, feelings, or sensations” they “experience during encounters with infrastructure sites, facilities, or processes” – what media scholar Lisa Parks terms a “phenomenology of infrastructure and affect.”24Lisa Parks, “Infrastructure” in Laurie Ouellette and Jonathan Gray, eds. Keywords in Media Studies, New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017, 107, 106. These protocols blend critical awareness of how people feel in different spatial arrangements with attention to the ways those physical spaces are built, managed, controlled, and used. Parks and others articulate a feminist theory in which material infrastructures and structures of feeling mutually constitute each other, providing key points of feminist intervention into the built environment and the ways it conditions experiences of violence and oppression.

In 2013, Brooklyn, NY-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh began drawing self-portraits and portraits of other women that she printed on posters over statements they made in response to experiences of street harassment. Fazlalizadeh posted her project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” online, making it available for free download and encouraging people to post them in their communities, as the image at the top of the article demonstrates from McGill University in Montreal.

Beth Capper and Michael Litwack analyze Fazlalizadeh’s project as a practice of feminist counter-surveillance that “inscribes women’s presence into the physical landscape of New York and other cities”25see Beth Capper and Michael Litwack, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Apps: 15. Her posters, they argue, “embed the politics of street harassment in the interface between stranger and intimate, home and community” in ways that refuse the militarization and securization of urban space through more policing or other carceral solutions to such violence. 26Capper and Litwack 15. By inserting these images into the circuits of everyday spaces, her work registers the temporality of street harassment—ordinary, repeating, unrelenting, quotidian—in ways that reject the spectacularization of the instant.27Capper and Litwack, 2017, 15.

Wheatpasted, site-specific posters that testify to the experiences of racialized and sexual harassment represent small-scale acts of feminist witnessing as disruptive interventions to the otherwise un- and under-acknowledged harms committed against people who are made vulnerable because of who they are as they move through city spaces. If the very notion of the porosity of urban spaces is “activated by urban struggles” that “redefines the city as a network of thresholds to be crossed,” then feminist interventions like “Stop Telling Me to Smile” in the places where sexualized and racialized gender violence is committed points to the formation of urban feminist anti-violence protocols that are reshaping the city without turning to overly-policed and “target hardening” responses.28See Stavros Stavrides, “Urban Porosity and the Right to a Shared City” in Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda, edited by Sophie Wolfrum, Birkhäuser, 2018, 32-33. 

The Instagram accounts @catcallsofNYC and @catcallsofldn provide another model of feminist response to violence tied to site-specific acts of intervention. Ruth George, a sophomore at the University of Illinois Chicago, was sexually assaulted and killed on Saturday November 23, 2019 after, as the press stated it, she ignored her assailant’s cat calls as she was walking to her car parked in a university lot. Headlines such as the Chicago Tribune’s on November 26th declared “Murder Suspect Grew Frustrated When UIC Student Didn’t React to His Catcalls, Prosecutors Allege.” The New York Times also headlined its November 27th story of her murder “A College Student Was Killed By a Man Whose Catcalls She Tried to Ignore, Prosecutors Say.” A lot of media coverage suggested that Donald Thurman’s violence was a result of George not responding to his catcalls, rather than his murderous intention to harm her out of his sense of entitlement to her attention and her body.  

Figure 3: @catcallsofldn, December 4, 2019. Note that the post states the wrong date for George’s death. She was killed on November 23rd.

In London, the anti-street harassment group Catcalls of London posted a photograph of a chalk-written message on a London sidewalk expressing solidarity with George’s surviving family and articulating a short-form feminist report of this violence on a city sidewalk. The post reminds readers that, while the violence happened in Chicago, “instances like this come along and it’s a stark reminder of why we do this work.” They also directly speak to the ways that the problem of catcalling is often explained away as a “compliment,” as “not that bad;” many survivors participate in this minimization of the violence in order to manage their repeated experiences of it, and their own senses of security.

An Instagram post from @catcallsofNYC documents a sexist and Islamophobic remark one young woman received while at Hunter College in New York.  Commenters post responses that articulate the intersectional nature of the harassment and their feelings of disgust.

Figure 4: Posted February 1, 2020, New York City.

Street-writing interventions like these chalk writing testimonials to violence on city sidewalks, and poster testimonials wheatpasted on nearby walls and telecommunication infrastructures, represent emerging vernacular standards of feminist response to violence that get written onto the physical environments of the city. They function as feminist modes of witnessing and bystander intervention on behalf of those who have been harassed, threatened and violated. Chalk writing on sidewalks also presumes that many pedestrians look down at their internet-connected mobile devices as they traverse the city, encouraging pedestrians to look beyond their screens to another message interface on the city infrastructure itself. These small-scale and site-specific interventions also scale up models of social change through their online distribution and their replication across different street locales. Their scaleability in a networked environment demonstrates how contemporary models of social change tend to target smaller scale conditions of structural violence and broad-scale harms, where “small perturbations are seen to produce big shifts” in behavior and social practice.29see Cass Sunstein. How Change Happens. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, xi. Student activists I have been interviewing appropriate Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s idea of the “nudge” in how they talk about doing social change work.

Via @catcallsofNYC, feminist anti-street harassment work also builds solidarity with movements seeking to decolonize the MTA system of public transport in New York City, a key portal of movement, and organizing, in the city. In a current campaign, we see activists’ efforts to expose the racism, classism, and inhospitableness of the MTA toward unhoused people and people needing to rest along the system’s transport hubs (see Figure 7). With its nudge to follow @decolonizethisplace, @catcallsofNYC connects its Instagram followers with the skill share information, critiques, and mobilizing strategies of activists who are reclaiming the MTA in the name of free and open public access and a reduction of police on the subway system.   During the summer of 2019, the New York Police Department increased the police force on the subways, buses and commuter, adding 200 NYPD officers and 300 MTA officers with a plan to add an additional 500 in the fall, according to a report in The Guardian.  Activists cited in The Guardian also decried the MTA’s penalization of poverty.

The Bronx-based FTP Coalition – which stands for Fuck the Police – made clear demands for the protests being held the week of January 31, 2020: “fuck your $2.75 (fare), no cops in the MTA, free transit, no harassment period, and full accessibility.” 

[supsystic-gallery id=12]

Protests picked up in October 2019  after several videos of police actions against riders were being recorded and shared on social media. In one, several police draw their guns on an unarmed rider whom another rider had reported was armed. He wasn’t. The person who shot the video and paid witness to the police action noted on Twitter that: “1. In the car, no one was scared of the young man. Everyone was terrified of the police. 2. Seeing the terror in his eyes will stay with me forever. 3. Seeing the anger in some of the officers’ eyes will as well.” 30from Twitter user @PopChassid, posted October 26, 2019. 

As Ara Wilson reminds us, “infrastructure is repurposed toward intimacies we cherish and toward those we don’t.”31Wilson 2016, 262. She was talking about the ways telephone poles can enable telephonic communication with our loved ones, but they also became materials of violence used in the tortures and killings of African-American men and women in the 20th century.  Sidewalks, subways, turnstiles, crosswalks and city streets – as well as Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds – shape the conditions for violence and provide its materials.  They are also being re-purposed around different modes of relationality that are anti-violence, anti-carceral, and intersectionally feminist.  The feminist protocols we see across women’s safety audits, chalk-written testimonials and their shared activist grammars, and the networked possibilities of response across online videos and Twitter and Instagram channels between movements: all seek to radically transform the ways we relate, and are related to, in fundamentally non-violent ways that embrace our differential needs of care, access, belonging and movement. The feminist protocols that activists create to address violence in the site-specific places and contexts in which it occurs, and the structural ways in which it is enacted and legitimated, offer models of feminist witnessing and action that can remake the city and our relations to it. 


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