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Managing fear in public space : young feminists’ intersectional experiences through Participatory Action Research

Maria Rodó de Zárate

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1In this paper I seek to contribute to feminist geographies of fear by analyzing the ways young feminists in a medium-sized non-metropolitan city of Catalonia manage fear and discomfort in public spaces. Through empirical and analytical methodologies that provide participatory insights to the intersectional and spatial experience of oppression and privilege, I examine their uses and    experiences of public space focusing on the personal and collective strategies they develop to face fear and discomfort.

2The literature on youth experiences of urban public space shows that this relationship is complex and rent with controversy. While the street is a space where young people find the freedom they need during this period of identity construction, a time when they also need to find spaces far from the adult gaze (Gough and Franch, 2005; Lieshout and Aarts, 2008), public space is also an ‘adultified’ space: it is constructed by and for adults and is produced as an adult space. Given adults’ spatial hegemony (Valentine, 1996) young people are excluded from a space that is understood to be public and supervised by the presence of adults who define and control it (Collins and Kearns, 2001; Chiu, 2009; Driskell et al., 2008). In addition, as feminist geographers have contended, “city space has been gendered in a way that tends to exclude women from the public space realm, or to include them only in highly scripted and delimited roles” (Ruddick, 1996; 135). Therefore, being in public streets is not the same for young women as it is for young men. It has been argued that boys are less controlled than girls in their spatial mobility (Thomas, 2005), as heteropatriarchy determines roles for each gender and disciplines bodies so that young women will behave appropriately in public spaces. For example, the fact that young women are seen in the street has specific consequences on their experience of that space, since their bodies are sexualized by the male gaze (Hyams, 2003). Although it has been argued that young people actively produce space, most studies on youth and public space highlight their limitations more than their ability to resist, so studies of young people focusing on their political activities and participation in social movements are hard to come by (Rodó-de-Zárate, 2013a). Concerning young women in particular, some authors argue that feminist researchers presume young women “to be more subject to ideological manipulation than [older] women” (Driscoll, 2002) and have eliminated young women as potential feminist subjects (Thomas, 2008).

  • 1 Geographies of fear have also explored men’s perceptions of fear. See, for instance, Brownlow, 2005 (...)

3As many feminist geographers have contended, one of the main seemingly relevant issues for determining the gendered experience of public space is the perception of fear. In feminist geographies, study of geographies of fear has mainly focused on examining the relationship between women’s fear1 and their perceptions and uses of public space. It has been contended that fear is entirely marked by gender and determines one’s experience of the city and freedom of movement (Pain, 2001; Koskela, 1997; Ruddick, 1996; Valentine, 1992). Women’s fears differ from men’s (Pain, 2001), but fear is also experienced differently amongst women (Wattis et al., 2011; Pain, 2001). Acknowledging difference between women is therefore crucial for understanding their negotiations in public space and revealing how class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, (dis)ability and other power structure may determine women’s experiences. Hence, “[intersectionality] offers an important potential tool for feminist geography to understand the intimate connections between the production of space and systematic productions of power” (Valentine, 2007; 19). It has moreover been argued that the fear women experience is a product of systematic structural violence (Pain, 2001) and that threatening situations serve as reminders of women’s vulnerability (Koskela, 1997). Fear is thus not merely a direct response to actual violence, but a result of the social production of women’s vulnerability. It has furthermore been contended that women are not merely objects experiencing restriction in public space, but that they also produce it (Koskela, 1997). Through the descriptions of boldness and bravery, Koskela (1997) analyzes women’s courage as practices of resistance in public space, indicating their ability to contribute to its production through their manifestations of confidence.

4Debates on intersectionality highlight the dangers of treating categories as separated oppressions, as it implies a differentiation of oppressions that can lead to understanding them in an essentialist way (Brown, 2011; Yuval-Davis, 2006; Garry, 2011). The vast majority of theorists have attempted to avoid this by insisting that such categories be understood as mutually constitutive (Davis, 2009; Lutz et al. 2011; Brah and Phoenix, 2004; Collins, 1998; Crenshaw, 1991; McCall, 2005; Phoenix and Pattynama, 2006; Walby, 2007). This means that the intersecting structures modify and constitute each other, and that this interrelationship changes the nature of the categories themselves (Garry, 2011; Davis, 2009). This conception implies categories are relational, meaning intersectionality is not just a way of making the intersectional experience of oppression relevant, but also a tool for analyzing particular categories. Intersectionality holds that analysis of oppression and the relationships between categories must account for the differences existing within categories and must avoid essentiali- zing them. In addition, by stressing that one can be simultaneously oppressor and oppressed (Valentine, 2007; Collins, 1998; Davis, 2009; Walby, 2007), intersectionality allows privilege and oppression to be analyzed at the same time (Brown, 2001; Davis; 2009; Collins, 1998; McCall, 2005; Valentine, 2007).

  • 2  Research carried out within the project ‘Plan Nacional de I+D+I 2008-2011’[2009; CSO2009-10913] an (...)

5Building on this conception of intersectionality and on studies focusing on the intersection of multiple dimensions of power to understand women’s experiences of fear in public space (see Pain 2001; Wattis et al., 2011) and their “spatial expertise” (Koskela, 1997), this paper contributes to feminist geographies of fear by analyzing how a group of young feminists manages fear in public spaces. Drawing on doctoral research2 conducted with young people, I present a new methodology for the study of geographies of intersectionality, Relief Maps. In so doing, I aim to highlight the importance of intersectional analysis for exploring the causes and negotiations of fear in public space. Moreover, based on a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach, I aim to shed light on the ability of these young women to manage fear and take possession of space. Focusing on their individual and collective strategies, I intend to advance toward a broader conceptualization of fear, from an intersectional and geographical perspective, and to contribute to research engaged with social movements and feminist political action.

6In the next section I describe the Participatory Action Research process and the analytical methods created to study intersectionality, the Relief Maps. I then examine the experiences of young women in public space. I delve more specifically into their feelings of fear from an intersectional perspective before examining their personal and collective reflections and resistances to face their oppressions in public space, focusing on the ways they manage fear and their personal, social and spatial conditioning. I conclude with some final remarks.


  • 3  Data extracted from the Anuari Estadístic de Manresa, 2011. Ajuntament de      Manresa.

7The empirical research was conducted in Manresa, a medium-sized non-metropolitan city (76,558 inhabitants) in Catalonia. The percentage of young people (16 to 29 years old) in the city is around 16%3 and half of them are currently unemployed. Due to the current economic and social crises, the situation for youth is becoming extremely difficult regarding work opportunities, access to public services, and possibilities of emancipation.

8The study focuses on a group of about 10 young white women, 16 to 21 years old, belonging to Acció Lila  (“Purple Action”) in the city of Manresa. This feminist group was born out of the need that a group of girls had to raise their consciousness of the gender oppression they suffered, to train themselves to better understand the power mechanisms affecting them and share their experiences. From their experiences came the need to take their struggle to the streets, conducting a range of public actions to spread their ideas (performances, video showings, talks, posters and banners, concerts) dealing with diverse topics such as sexuality, work, personal relationships, gender stereotypes and standards of beauty. Although I make no claim of universal applicability, this group’s specificity may offer some insights into the intersectional and spatial experience and negotiation of fear.  

9The methodological research process combined Participatory Action Research (PAR) with the Relief Maps. As part of the PAR process, five discussion sessions were held between 2011 and 2012 to bring to light the participants’ experience and use of public spaces. All these sessions (of about two hours each), held in the squatted house they use for their meetings, were recorded and transcribed. My involvement in the discussions was focused on suggesting some general issues and letting them speak about their experiences. As they already knew each other and were used to managing such debates, the aim of my interventions was only to situate the discussion and redirect it when they strayed from the topic. The first session focused on their conceptions of public space and their general experiences in the city, focusing on their uses of places and their feelings. The following  sessions were centered on deepening the discussion about fear and identifying the circumstances that produce it, based on their personal experiences and strategies. In the last session, I asked each to draw her own Relief Maps following the method described below. This process was also recorded, and the comments and discussions that arose during the drawing were also taken into account.

Participatory Action Research

  • 4  As Cahill (2004) states, this process departs from a critique of the sexism involved in Freire’s l (...)

10Following the principles of Participatory Action Research (PAR), the research took a collective focus involving the people being “studied” (Cahill, 2004). Beginning with personal experience of daily life and making it a shared experience through reflective discussion, the research process itself was emphasized, with the intent of converting personal experience into a collective political consciousness through a feminist Freirian model4 (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1994). This process is based on creating an awareness that participants use for self-empowerment but also to find solutions to the problems they face. This collective approach to research allows participants to share the experiences of their everyday life, raise their political awareness and transform them into vehicles for social change (Cahill, 2004).

11Using the PAR approach, which takes lived experience as the  starting point for research, emphasis is placed on transgression (individual and collective and everyday and organized) to break the cycle of victimization, since the approach is not only focused on the oppression experienced but also on the type of response. It begins with the conviction that “people are able to resist the construction of expectations about practice through place by using places and their established meanings in subversive ways” (Cresswell, 1996 p.22), and even if the surroundings restrict and shape subjectivity, young people have the capacity to negotiate their social condition using what Cahill calls “street literacy”, the “dynamic processes of experiental knowledge production and self-construction in a specified context, public urban space” (Cahill, 2000, p. 252). The emphasis is thus placed on young women’s ability to transgress and manage oppression in these spaces, based on their lived experience.

12Prior personal knowledge of the group and its environment were determining factors for the study. That some of the women and I knew each other through mutual engagement in the feminist movement was crucial for establishing political connections and trust based on feminist activism and ideological proximity. Moreover, our comparable ages, gender and backgrounds made me familiar with their experiences. Although research on young people must be alert to power relationships and the ethical issues of dealing with this age group (Hopkins, 2010), in this case, thanks to the bonds of our proximity, a climate of trust and respect was created that allowed us to explore the raised issues more deeply and conduct research carefully, attentive to the power relationships that could emerge. The space of trust and respect created among all participants made it possible to address the research questions openly, paying attention to the needs of each individual. Even so, the three- to seven-year age difference   between participants and researcher was evident in the group discussions, as well as the difference in educational background.

13There is often a tendency to victimize the young people with (or about) whom research is done, treating them as vulnerable persons who must be empowered (Hopkins, 2010) or who must be given theoretical or practical knowledge of collective liberation processes. In this case, the participants themselves were carrying out collective processes of empowerment by training themselves and sharing their experiences as women in Acció Lila prior to this study. Therefore, through the participation process, I also wanted to demonstrate how young people, and these young women in particular, already have their own ways of managing their identities, strategies, political consciousness, and thinking about overcoming the oppression they suffer, specifically emphasizing how they manage discomforts in  public space.

Relief Maps

  • 5  See Rodó-de-Zárate (2013b) for a detailed explanation of the construction of the Relief Maps and t (...)

14A specific tool, the Relief Maps, was developed to obtain intersectional data in a reflexive way that simultaneously produced a visual display for spatially analyzing intersectionality5. The name “Relief Maps” highlights two meanings of the word “relief” in English: “distinctiveness due to being accentuated” — the hills and curves that emerge and show the places of oppression — and “relief” as “alleviation or removal of pain, anxiety or distress” — referring to the valleys, the places where oppressive experiences decline and culminate in the “places of relief”. Thus the concept of “relief” shows the dynamism and mobility between places and experiences according to the multiple structures that intersect.

15As I have noted elsewhere (Rodó-de-Zárate, 2013b), Relief Maps provide an image of the different lived experiences that people have in different places according to various power structures. By representing interviewees’ narratives in specific places, it becomes possible to visualize complex geographical and intersectional data while relating lived experiences (the psychological dimension), power structures (the social dimension) and place (the geographical dimension) (see Figure 1). Moreover, specific categories such as “woman”, “man” or “trans” are not shown directly on Relief Maps, but the po- wer structure (in this case, gender) is shown. In this way, categories are considered in a fluid way, not rigid or imposed, always bearing in mind the positions of privilege and oppression that are occupied in the different power structures. Place is posited as fundamental to the  analysis of power relations and the processes of subject formation, as much for how (and where) forms of oppression are suffered as how they are transgressed. Relief Maps are a way of understanding power relations experientially and spatially, giving place a fundamental position in the analysis of the intersectional experience of oppression and privilege.

Figure 1: Mònica’s Relief Map with my annotations (in red) to indicate each dimension.

16The researcher can draw Relief Maps from a narrative obtained in an interview, but Figure 2 is an example of having the research participant draw the map him or herself, becoming a methodology in itself and a specific method. The process in the study was as follows: first, young women were asked to list places that were relevant to their everyday life. Next, they were to note their feelings about each place according to gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity and class, as shown in Figure 3. They had to think about how they felt, for example, at home as a woman, then as white, being 17 years old, etc. Once all the blanks were filled with their feelings for each place and power structure, they were to classify each as a place of oppression, a place of intersected experiences, a neutral place or a place of relief. They were then told to draw lines on the Relief Map, placing the dots in a line from comfort to discomfort. The dot’s position is determined by what they wrote for every place and power structure. Therefore, a highly placed dot indicates a strong feeling of discomfort for a certain identity, and a dot situated close to the horizontal axis indicated a comfortable feeling. These dots were then connected by a line of the same color. Parti-cipants were then asked to think about possible tensions between power structures and to represent them with an arrow. These arrows represent the intensification thesis, namely the thesis that defends that some positions in some power structures intensify other forms of oppression.

Figure 2 : Mònica’s Relief Map. She is 17 years old and identifies herself as a white woman, “middle-class”, with a “non-defined sexuality”. She drew the map herself.

Figure 3 : Gemma’s chart. The headings, from left to right, are : “places”, “gender”, “sexuality”, “ethnicity”, “class” and “age”.

  • 6  All names have been changed to preserve anonymity. Participants chose their pseudonyms in the firs (...)

17For example, Mònica6 argued that being a woman increased her feeling of discomfort as a young person at her parents’ home (the first place on the chart “casa pares”), because she had fewer possibilities of negotiation as a young person because of her gender. It is represented by an orange arrow (for gender) pointing toward age. To distinguish the arrows in the Relief Maps, those that intensify the oppression are directed upwards and those that mitigate it, downwards, independently of whether it is a privilege or an oppression to be the intensifier or the intensified category. It was quite difficult for participants to think where they might put arrows in their Relief Maps. But in the process of analyzing the results the arrows help the researcher to consider the potential tensions evoked in the discussion sessions in order to identify the causes of specific forms of oppression and how categories relate to each other.

18Relief Maps consequently have important implications for the thinking it requires of respondents and the conclusions that can be reached. Making a person (or group of people) think about how she feels in every place she frequents in her everyday life and what aspect of her identity causes each experience also provides knowledge and thinking on the social position she occupies. Their utility as a reflexive tool was surprising in cases where there was a deep introspection on the causes of discomfort and a greater awareness of both oppression and privilege. The process of creating their own Relief Maps gave meaning to their experiences and put their feelings into relation with broader social and spatial processes.

19Relief Maps thus visually show the dynamics of intersectionality and can be used as a tool for understanding the multiple dimensions of power and their variations from place to place. The lines show movement toward escape or creating new places (since places go from the most oppressive ones to the most comfortable).

20Following Katz’s metaphorical use of countertopographies – a gographical creation at the crossing of scale and place, connecting distinct places to particular processes (Katz, 2011) – the lines can be interpreted as representing contour lines (Katz, 2001). They connect distinct places relevant to these young women’s daily lives to broader processes, such as the gendering of public space through fear. Relief Maps are thus a way to obtain complex data about intersectional experiences, analyze that data from an intersectional perspective, and visually display that data and the conceptualization of intersectionality.

21Intersectionality’s conceptualization is a representation allowing us to understand categories as mutually constitutive, because they show how experience is simultaneously conditioned by a variety of positions in different social structures at place. Moreover they allow privilege and oppression to be analyzed at the same time, by taking into account the different power structures and their various dimensions. Power structures are represented as being the entire experience, not as factors added to or crossing the subject. Consequently, the specificity of each power structure is maintained (for example, the experience of age can be individuated by following the dark blue line) but it is displayed in relation to the others contributing to its constitution. Relief Maps reveal the identities that are hidden behind each curve but they are not represented directly. They thus also allow for dissident or marginalised identifications that may have a place on the map just like hegemonic identifications. This way, I try to avoid using categories in a fragmentary, essentializing way, focusing instead on processes of mutual category construction, and banish the notion that they are distinct and homogenous. This retains a conception of categories as multiple and shifting while showing the material consequences of oppression through lived experience.

Fear in public space : An intersectional discomfort

22When analyzing their experience of public space during the discussions, the main issue that arose as the cause of discomfort in public space, and the reason why the gender dot was situated upwards, was fear. Being this topic the most relevant for them, we started some conversations about their experiences, trying to identify the causes of these feelings and highlight their current strategies against fear and possible future collective actions. In this section I set out to examine the ways young feminists experience fear in public space based on both the discussions and the Relief Maps drawn by them. Therefore, I analyze their experience of discomfort as intersections of multiple positions in different power structures and as spatially conditioned process. I use the concept of discomfort to show that fear is not the only feeling giving them a negative experience of public space and, moreover, even when they feel confident in public, the attendant need to be courageous causes discomfort. I argue that this is in itself a sign of inequality in the access to and use of public space.

23As can be seen in Figures 2 and 4, the orange line (for gender) is drawn as a curve. It shows how gender identity is a key factor in the participants’ feeling discomfort in different places. This orange line is accentuated in all of their Relief Maps. Although it varies according to each places and how it interacts with other lines, its accentuations shows that this identity is, at least, a relevant cause of discomfort in certain places. Their Relief Maps could be used to make a deeper analysis of the power dynamics in each place, but I would like to focus on why the gender dot is in a high position and how it relates to other power structures.

Figure 4 : Gemma’s Relief Map. She is 20 years old and defines herself as a white heterosexual middle-class woman. She drew the map herself. The orange line refers to gender, light blue to sexuality, green to ethnicity, dark blue to age and red to class.

24As Figure 4 shows, gender dots are accentuated in public spaces: “Pl. Milcentenari” (a square), “Barri Vell/Escodines” (a neighborhood), “Bars”. This highlights the significance of their gender to their experience of public space, but why is it so strong? The following quotes serve as evidence and demonstrate how fear is an important factor increasing their discomfort in public space.

Ayla :  It makes me really angry, I feel terrible! Alone, at night... I don’t feel comfortable at all... I would never stop and smoke a cigarette... Because I never let my guard down, I can’t wait to get home, you know, and feel good. I am not taking a walk, I am going home.

Àfrica : It is one thing when they say “hey, cutie!” and you pass by, you get angry, but... There are situations that can’t be... Once they grabbed me and... you know. There are these situations and it’s like... look...  

25Ayla’s quote indicates that she does not feel comfortable at night in public spaces. She goes through the streets of Manresa but she does not want to stay there. The streets become a place of transit, not a place to be, for fear of aggression. Feminist geographers have argued that the visible presence of young women’s bodies in an adult masculinist heterosexual public space makes them subject of masculine gaze, which sexually objectifies them (Hyams, 2003). Moreover, the internalization of the masculine gaze acts as a panoptic that disciplines women whether they are seen or not (Valentine, 2000) and prevents them from using certain parts of the city (Day, 2001). This is clear in these quotes, as their experience of discomfort manifests itself in a permanent awareness of violence, whether they suffer aggressions or not.

26This goes to show how women’s use of public space is controlled by spatial practices (Ruddick, 1996; Pain, 2001; M. E Thomas, 2005, Ehrkamp, 2013), however, it is not only fear what undermines their access to public space, but a broader sense of discomfort. Identifying discomfort, not just fear, counters a reductionist view of access to public space. At the same time, it challenges the presence/absence dichotomy, as access to public space is not only the possibility of being out in the street at night, but how one may be in the street. The Relief Maps enable an understanding of access to public space that allows for the possibility of feeling comfortable in places of privilege, showing how we are in space and challenging the conceptualizations of spatial justice as territorialization or presence in determinate places. Placing experience at the heart of the analysis allows the everyday consequences of power dynamics to be highlighted. Being comfortable in places and being able to move comfortably through places are sign of privilege, and clearly the young women participating in this study do not feel this privilege in public spaces.

  • 7  Some of the members of Acció Lila named public space in general as ‘Manresa’, referring to the str (...)

27However, they are not only women, and their intersected identities play an important role in their experiences in public space. As we saw in Figures 2 (see “Manresa”7), 4 (see “Pl Milcentenari” and “Barri Vell/Escodines”), and 5 (see “Manresa”), the gender dot (in orange) is accentuated in public space, but there are other lines, such as age, operating in a different dynamic. Gemma’s (Figure 4) is paradigmatic. She indicates her parents’ home (“casa pares”) as the most oppressing place. She drew the age dot (in dark blue) extremely high and the gender dot (in orange) rather low. She did the opposite for “Plaça Milcentenari”, a secluded square in Manresa, drawing the dots in the reverse positions. The whole map seems a struggle between contradictory feelings of age (in dark blue) and gender (orange), as can be seen by the intersection of these two lines, drawing an X to the left. Where she feels comfortable as a woman, she feels oppressed as a young person, and where she feels fear or discrimination as a woman, feels free as a young person. It has been reported that youth generally experience a certain degree of freedom in public space (Lieshout and Aarts, 2008), and many studies address women’s fear in public space. But in this case, the tension between the two comes from the simultaneous experience of gender and age. Simply adding age to gender is insufficient for accounting for their lived experience, as it is contradictory and varies from place to places. Gemma’s narrative highlights the importance of public space for dependant youth when home is an oppressive place:

Gemma :  It also  depends on you, if in your private space, where you should feel safe, you feel comfortable or not. It happened to me. There was a while... I felt so bad at home. I never wanted to be there. If I was going back home, I took the long way. I preferred to get home later, even if it was so late, I felt better in the street than at home. I knew there was going to be an argument at home and instead, the street was a shelter for me, out of that mess.

28So even if fear is a key determinant in their experience of public space, other circumstances may challenge this situation. When home is not a safe place, public space becomes less frightening. Abril’s Relief Map (Figure 5) also shows this tension: “Manresa” is depicted as uncomfortable for gender but liberating for her being a young person. There is a contradiction in that the places where she feels freedom (mainly leisure spaces such as the street, Barcelona or the pub “Stroika”) at the same time increase her feeling of fear or discrimination as a woman.

Figure 5 : Abril’s Relief Map, which she drew herself. She is 21 years old. The colors are the same as in other maps: orange (gender), light blue (sexuality), green (ethnicity), dark blue (age) and red (class).

29This analysis shows the relevance of intersectional analysis for taking lived experience into consideration, and, more specifically, for understanding feelings of discomfort and fear in public space, as their experiences demonstrate that age and gender are mutually constituted and in relation with other power structures. For instance, the sexual objectification of women in public spaces is generally concentrated on certain ages (not children or elderly women, at least not in the same way), and in this case, both gender and age condition their experience of fear of aggression. Being young leads to their objectification as women. These processes thus reflect the mutual constitution of age and gender.

30Valentine contends “although we may think of class, race and gender as different social structures, individual people experience them simultaneously” (Valentine, 2007; 13). Therefore, although the Relief Maps depict power structures separately, they also allow us to analyze of the experience of oppression as mutually constituted. The fact that Gemma did not like to be at home is due to specific power relations, but it is also related to her age and class position. This situation challenged her perception of public space as a young woman and her feeling of vulnerability. Intersectional analysis thus allows more precise understanding of the production of space and its connections with power relations.

  • 8  Youth unemployment (under 25 years old) was at the end of 2012 of 55,13% (EPA). It is still on the (...)

31Continuing with the intersectional analysis, class is also relevant in those situations and also helps us understand the causes of fear in public spaces. Class is not very present in participants’ Relief Maps and it was very difficult to determine what class means for young people that have precarious jobs and live with their parents. Their class identity seems to be in a process of formation and it was difficult for them to specify. Nonetheless, there were fruitful discussions regarding class position as dependant youth. Carla compared her situation to her mother’s, as both are dependant on their father/husband, so his class position cannot be directly applied to them. She related feminist statements regarding women’s dependency due to the sexual division of work and her economic dependency as a young person. Even if it was difficult for participants to separate their age and class position, they argued that their economic status did not allow their emancipation, which some of them really desired. Moreover, those living far from the city centre also argued that their feeling of fear would decrease considerably if they could afford a taxi, showing that economic limitations increase the feeling of fear in the city at night. Even if class is not particularly present in their Relief Maps, a red arrow pointing toward gender should be drawn in some places. The fact that they think it is “normal” for young people to be precarious shows the naturalization of certain forms of oppression or discrimination, such as the precarization of youth in times of crisis. Furthermore, it also demonstrates how power structures are mutually constituted, as class processes also occur through age discriminations8, and gendered experiences of fear in public space are also accentuated by class position.

32In relation to lines representing sexuality, Mònica’s Relief Map (Figure 2) shows an accentuation. She does not define herself as lesbian. As she commented, she has been in relationships with both women and men. It is important to highlight that this line interacts significan-tly with gender, following a similar course. As I have noted elsewhere (Rodó-de-Zárate, 2013c), sexuality is generally one of the most accentuated lines for youth in Manresa, especially in the case of lesbians. Sexuality is seen as an important factor for determining comfort in public space, since the necessity of having to take constant decisions regarding when and where they can hold hands or kiss each other causes considerable discomfort. In this case, it can be noticed that heteronormativity in public space plays an important role that conditions their experiences and that interacts with other power structures. Heteronormativity’s importance in public spaces is therefore a relevant factor for determining discomfort that may also contribute to accentuating feelings of fear when a homophobic aggression is feared.

33Ethnicity is also relevant in their Relief Maps, as they all draw flat lines. One interesting situation during the discussions was that they “discovered” having a specific skin color. The differentiation process was highlighted when they were asked to think about their ethnicity, as some had never thought it before. The presence of this green line is thus also useful for thinking about their position of privilege. It is nonetheless worth pointing out that both Mònica (Figure 2) and Gemma (Figure 4) accentuated the ethnicity line in “Lleida”, the city where they study. They explained they had some difficulties dealing with immigrant people in public spaces. They were confronted with racial difference and felt that being white was a disadvantage when wishing to pass unnoticed, arguing that they were afraid on streets with an immigrant presence. Therefore they indicated it as a discomfort due to ethnicity. However, is it an experience of oppression? Is this fear due to their position in a power structure? I argue that this is an example of how, some places and some social relations may make one feel uncomfortable due to specific power relations, even when it is not part of structural oppression. Women may be structurally oppressed, but in women-only sites men may feel discomfort because of their gender. The Relief Maps also represent these kinds of situations, which is why the identities hiding behind the lines are needed for uncovering the specific power dynamics operating in each place. This could enable us to distinguish between suffering from forms of oppression due to a subjugated position in power structures and suffering discomfort due to specific power dynamics in specific places.

Managing fear in public space

34In this section I examine the specific tools these young women have developed for resisting discomfort in public space as well as their collective strategies. I will delve into how they negotiate public space, focusing on their thoughts about what causes their fear, the conditions of their experiences, and the possibilities they have for transgressing them.

35During the discussion sessions, discomfort in public space was mainly attributed to their gender, mostly in reaction to sexual intimidation or abuse. We spent a whole session speaking about the causes of their discomfort and their feelings of fear in particular. Their feminist consciousness and their political engagement made the discussion rife with factors relevant to the analysis. A common experience of fear at night emerged in the process, enabling a political analysis of its causes. Among them, they reported common experiences such as men’s remarks about their bodies, sexual propositions, intimidating looks, tracings, men masturbating in front of them, and being touched. I do not claim to address these attack’s characteristics or specificities here, but instead try to examine how the young women’s feminist perspective and the discussion process intrinsic to this study allowed their positions to be strengthened individually and collectively. Once the commonalities of the experiences were identified, the discussion turned to causes and responses.

36Women not only experience space, they produce it as well (Pain, 2001), and the everyday uses of space are central to the analysis of acts of resistance (Ehrkamp, 2013). Therefore, these young feminists’ everyday spatial practices show how their ability to manage their identities in space is an act of resistance while also highlighting the wor- kings of power. The Relief Maps clearly show the existence of places of relief as places figuring in strategies to resist oppression. In the three presented figures, the women situate their current home (in all cases, a flat shared with other students) as a place of relief. This shows their ability to create their own spaces where they feel safe, comfortable and free. But in addition to the creation of places acting as shelters, there are also everyday actions that counter the discomfort they might feel, which might signal the reclaiming of space.

37Discussion sessions focused on the social causes of their feeling of fear. Their upbringings and the constant discourse of young women’s vulnerability coming from their families, school, and media were seen as fundamental causes. As Valentine (1992) has argued, the social construction of fear is reproduced through ideologies about women transmitted in parental and other warnings. As the next quote shows, they identified the cause of their fear in the discourses directed at them indicating their supposed vulnerability. Fear did not come from objective and concrete frightening situations; it was part of a permanent state of feeling vulnerable, a constant awareness of being potential victims of sexual attacks.

Ayla : I was also really afraid to go in the streets because of all the things they had been telling me. My parents always said, “beware of what they might say to you, beware of boys, beware of parties, beware of the night”. And then when I was on the street… They are going to take me in a car and they’ll do everything to me! My grandma, my uncle, everybody said “beware of the street”. And then you go out with lots of fears, anything can happen to you. And this fear makes you run when you see a danger instead of learning how to defend yourself…

38It must be noted that they often spoke in the past tense when narrating their experiences of fear. Although they are still young, their experiences as teenagers were even more intense. In Ayla’s quote, her family’s discourse was extremely important, coming not only from her parents but also from her grandmother and uncle. This shows that age is a factor relevant to feeling fear in public space, as youth implies a significant susceptibility to family discourses that may increase the sense of vulnerability. In addition to age, she also speaks in the past tense because of her participation in a feminist group. During the discussion, the discourse about women’s vulnerability sounded overly stereotypical, so the conversation turned to address it. Ayla remarked “I think that the fact of having this [feminist] consciousness makes you angry about being afraid. It is like saying ‘I don’t want to be afraid!’” They discussed the anger they felt about being afraid, because they realized that it prevented them from living freely at night because they were women. Moreover, their feminist consciousness leads them to get angry when they want to respond to sexual comments but are afraid of the possible consequences. They have found several tools, however, allowing them to act in the tension between the anger that pushes them to respond and the caution that pushes them to be silent and submit.

39Their shared experiences revealed complex strategies for facing fear in public space. Caution was the point of departure for all of them, a permanent state of alert that determined the gender dot position on the Relief Maps (in orange). And their complex strategies show the intersections between different power structures and the role of space. Their age is seen as a problem when they are taken as sexual objects and because of how they use space (going out at night every weekend). The visibility of their bodies is read from a masculinist, heterosexist, and adultist gaze. If public space at night could be seen as a place of freedom, the adult male gaze sexually objectifies their bodies and conditions their experience of public space, and their responses to the gazes, comments, and attacks shed light on the dyna- mics of these relations. Sílvia, a member of Acció Lila who identifies herself as lesbian, explained how responding “shut up, I’m lesbian!” to a sexual comment in the street changed the aggressor-victim positioning and made her feel stronger. The disruption of heteronormative expectations rendered the comment inappropiate to the situation and it lost its coercive potential. In this example, the intersecting dynamics of experience come clearly into play. One oppressive position in a power structure is used to minimize another oppressive experience. Challenging the heterosexual norm, the gender relation is also dis- ruptted, demonstrating that gender and sexuality are mutually constituting and unfixed — and that within that unrigidity there is space for transgression.

40Participants reported they commonly transgressed by responding to sexual comments. Although they say that it makes them nervous and more afraid, it is also a form of empowerment. During the discussions, we spent many hours debating the criteria for the decision to respond to a sexual comment or not. They identified three main factors: the aggressor’s characteristics, their own reactive abilities, and spatial conditions.

41As to the aggressor’s characteristics, there are many stereotypes for determining how secure they might feel in responding. Racist comments came up in the discussion: although the young women acknowledged they were stereotypes, they conditioned their feelings anyway. This accords with other studies showing that white women tend to experience fear in racialized terms (Day, 1999; Valentine, 1989; Pain, 2001). The threat was intensified when related to men of color, and it was seen as something they “should not feel,” indicating a need to deconstruct their racist stereotypes. But there were many other aspects influencing their feeling fear in relation to the “potential aggressor’s” characteristics. The number of men gathered, the objects they are carrying, or their physical state (in relation to age, ability, or being under the influence of drugs) were also important. It is not my intention to analyze the relation between stereotypes and the connection with direct aggressions here, but rather to stress that there are many personal and social factors in play that determine their experience of public space, and that these young women take many issues into account when deciding how to react. This finding recalls Koskela’s (1997) analysis of women’s ability to interpret who might be dangerous, and how it creates a sense of spatial confidence because they feel capable of interpreting their environment.

42Spatial conditions appeared as extremely relevant for determining fear. Knowing the street or the neighborhood was considered an important but not determinant factor. When they are familiar with the place where they are walking, they feel more confident, a finding confirmed by other studies (Koskela, 1997). But there is more to it than that, as some of them considered the very street where they live as a frightening place. All of them agreed that the time of day was one of the most important factors, confirming the widely reported statement that “night is scary.” But some members of Acció Lila also highlight- ted the weather. In the warm seasons in Manresa, the streets are full of people enjoying themselves until late at night. All study participants agreed that this presence makes them feel more confident, but this was not the only reason. The hot weather of summer in Manresa also means that people leave their windows open while they sleep, redu- cing the separation of public and private spaces. This gap between public and private increases their confidence, since they felt that in case of danger someone would be more likely to hear them than when windows were closed. In addition, their feelings of fear were also lower when they walked towards a bar as compared with going home. They argued that the fact that the door was locked increased their  insecurity, because they needed time to find the keys and open the door. The importance of windows and doors here demonstrates that the flexibility of the division between public and private space is not only conceptual, but also physical. And the less rigid the separation, the greater the confidence, at least when they are “outside”. This thus demonstrates that the boundaries between public and public spaces are porous (Bondi and Domosh, 1998), not only in an abstract way but also in relation to the physical materiality of spaces.

43This can best be understood in terms of how the physical environment relates to certain social relations, and not simply in terms of the specific built environment. Consequently, as Koskela and Pain have argued, improvements to built environments may not have significant effects on fear of crime (Koskela and Pain, 2001). The analyses of fear that emerged from our discussions demonstrate the complexity of feelings of fear and how bound they are to spatial conditions. This moreover challenges the assumption that urban planning can put an end to women’s fears, and contributes to the understanding of space as something unfinished. Urban planning may condition experiences of public space, but the power structures operating in them also condition certain populations’ feelings. In this case, instead of focusing on streets’ specific characteristics, feminist consciousness-raising was seen as a valuable tool for fighting fear because it was focused on gender oppression and how they might resist it through feminist empowerment.

44So as we have seen, the factors determining the young women’s  responses are diverse and complex. Regarding personal conditions, the fact of being alone or accompanied was determinant. They try to go home with a friend, which makes them feel safer to respond. Alcohol consumption was another important factor, as are supplementary elements like carrying a motorbike helmet or holding a bunch of keys they could use in self-defense. But their individual responses to sexual remarks that had led to positive situations was the most valuable tool, as it demonstrated that they were not as vulnerable as they feared and that they had tools to face aggression.

Ayla : Outside the library there are always these Moroccan boys, and every time you go over there they say “pretttyyyy”.Once I said “Pretty yourself!” I… “ ‘pretty’, my mother says that, don’t say ‘pretty’ to me! ” And they never said it to me again. I told them, the other day I was walking down the street and four boys around 25 years old were walking behind me at one a.m. and I said nothing. They were saying things to me, but I didn’t have the eggs to turn around and… have problems, you know. It depends on the situation… and they feel they have the authority…

Àfrica : Sometimes, when I’d see a group of boys I passed them wondering what they would do to me... And now I see a group of men and I feel confident. They should watch out! But it is true, all the things people say… beware of this and that, what you do, what they might say…

45Ayla’s quote shows how the decision is determined by various factors, including the spatial situation. With four men behind her, she was not confident enough to respond to comments. But she explains how her response to another group of men in the street was successful. She was able to respond, she felt empowered when she did it, and it had positive consequences, as they never accosted her again. Àfrica argues along the same lines, explaining how she used to feel intimidated when passing a group of men but now she feels confident. Although she acknowledges that she is still aware of them, she is confident and prepared to respond to their comments. Her attitude also seems to imply a change in men’s behavior.

46These responses thus show that their empowerment reduces their feelings of fear, which they attribute to their feminist consciousness and empowerment. Although they know that they are subject to potential attacks, they try to control their fear. Their resistance, understood as transforming the conditions under which one lives (Cresswell, 2000), is inevitably related to power. As Foucault states, “resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (1978, p. 95), so their resistance demonstrates that they continue to feel uncomfortable even if their conditioning reduces their feeling of vulnerability. Their empowerment helps them change their position in public space, but it does not put an end to the permanent awareness of potential aggression (the cause of discomfort), which is in itself a form of oppression stemming from their positions in a range of power structures, such as gender or age.

47Regarding the collective actions developed during the research process to deal with fear in public spaces, participants’ first concern was to organize feminist self-defense training. They opened some sessions up to other young women, aiming to develop specific psychological and physical tools for responding to aggression. These were followed by public actions such as posters with the slogan “Streets free of fear”. They said that these actions made them feel confident and secure, and broke with discourses of young women’s vulnerability. Their empowerment through collective consciousness-raising and feminist self-defense was their way of resisting the widespread perception of young women as victims of sexual aggression who lack authority. Moreover, a brainstorming session about possible collective actions produced many more ideas: organizing nocturnal women-only group activities in public spaces, occupying public space to hold their meetings, staying together at night in “dangerous” spots of the city. Although these ideas may not come to see the day, brainstorming about ways of collectively reacting against fear lead to an important development: when they, as young feminists, are together in public space, they are not afraid. This was an especially relevant conclusion for the research process: social control, manifest in limiting women’s access to public space, can be challenged by creating feminist solidarity among women.


48The way that a group of young feminist women experiences public space is conditioned by their positions in various power structures and by spatial conditions. Their feelings of fear are related to broader social processes, such as the control of women’s access to public space and their freedom of movement. As we have seen, the process of Participatory Action Research allowed their narratives and thoughts about comfort and discomfort to take their place in the research. Their feminist consciousness played an important role in the process of moving from lived experience to political and social processes. The discussions allowed a collective production of knowledge as Acció Lila’s members analyzed their experiences spatially and developed tools to confront the oppression they face. Relief Maps served as an important tool for thinking about and emphasizing the intersectional experience and the importance of space in their experience. Relief Maps are thus a methodology, a form of analysis and displaying intersectional data, and a tool for conceptualizing intersectionality itself. This visual re- presentation shows the connections between the systematic production of power and the production of space, where the complexities of   oppression and privilege are both presented in a simplified way.

49Participants identified fear as their most intense discomfort in pu- blic space, so we discussed its causes and how it might be managed at length. The discomfort was due to the intersectional experience, particularly determined by their gender and age, which emerged as the most controversial factor because of the conflicting experiences they provoke. Their individual agency as feminists was highlighted by focusing on their strategies for facing fear and aggression. Their transgressions also manifested the norms and power relations in play. Their political consciousness was a key factor for analyzing where their fears came from, especially the conceptions of vulnerability commonly applied to young women. Their ability to manage their identities and their spatial knowledge shows the importance of studying young feminists’ strategies and political awareness. Their conceptions of private and public space, their concerns about class and ethnicity, and the way they face oppression through collective thought and action can contribute to feminist geography and our understanding of spatial experience and power relations. At the same time, I argued that although these young women are able to confront their fear, their permanent state of awareness produces a discomfort that is itself a form of discrimination mediated by spatial conditioning and inter-sected identities.

50In short, participatory research processes with young people allow new voices to be heard in academia. Furthermore, doing research with feminist organized youth allows a profound understanding of their experiences and their often neglected point of view. Thanks to their everyday practices addressing social issues from a feminist perspective, this study of geographies of fear was conducted in a collective and non-victimizing way.

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Maria Rodó de Zárate(Georgaphy Department, Autonomous University of Barcelone)


I would like to express my deep gratitude to the insightful and wonderful feminist activists I had the privilege to work with during this research. Moltes gràcies per deixar-me compartir amb vosaltres aquests moments i la vostra força. I would also like to thank my advisor, Mireia Baylina, for her invaluable comments and support, as well as the anonymous reviewers.

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1 Geographies of fear have also explored men’s perceptions of fear. See, for instance, Brownlow, 2005 for a study on men’s apparent fearlessness in public space.

2  Research carried out within the project ‘Plan Nacional de I+D+I 2008-2011’[2009; CSO2009-10913] and thanks to the doctoral grant (FPI) from the Spanish State   Department of Science and Innovation.

3  Data extracted from the Anuari Estadístic de Manresa, 2011. Ajuntament de      Manresa.

4  As Cahill (2004) states, this process departs from a critique of the sexism involved in Freire’s language and ideas of liberation.

5  See Rodó-de-Zárate (2013b) for a detailed explanation of the construction of the Relief Maps and their theoretical and methodological implications.

6  All names have been changed to preserve anonymity. Participants chose their pseudonyms in the first session.

7  Some of the members of Acció Lila named public space in general as ‘Manresa’, referring to the streets of the city.

8  Youth unemployment (under 25 years old) was at the end of 2012 of 55,13% (EPA). It is still on the rise in the Spanish context of “crisis”, where the Labor Reform RDL 3/2012 of 10 February 2012 permits lower wage salaries for youth and even more precarious labor conditions.

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List of illustrations

Caption Figure 1: Mònica’s Relief Map with my annotations (in red) to indicate each dimension.
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Caption Figure 2 : Mònica’s Relief Map. She is 17 years old and identifies herself as a white woman, “middle-class”, with a “non-defined sexuality”. She drew the map herself.
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Caption Figure 3 : Gemma’s chart. The headings, from left to right, are : “places”, “gender”, “sexuality”, “ethnicity”, “class” and “age”.
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Caption Figure 5 : Abril’s Relief Map, which she drew herself. She is 21 years old. The colors are the same as in other maps: orange (gender), light blue (sexuality), green (ethnicity), dark blue (age) and red (class).
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Electronic reference

Maria Rodó de Zárate, “Managing fear in public space : young feminists’ intersectional experiences through Participatory Action Research ”Les cahiers du CEDREF [Online], 21 | 2014, Online since 20 October 2015, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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