Editor's note: Ragene Palma is an urbanist. She finished International Planning and Sustainable Development MA at the University of Westminster as a Chevening scholar.
I had just finished reading the recently published Her City toolbox — which is subtitled as a “guide for cities to sustainable and inclusive urban planning and design together with girls” — and revisiting my notes from reading Leslie Kern’s “Feminist City, Claiming Space in a Man-Made World.” Since I read the latter in July of last year, thoughts about living in the Philippine city as a woman have been brewing in my brain, sometimes with hope, but often with indignation.
Let me share where these feelings come from. During my first job, when I was 20, I commuted to and from Marikina and Pasay everyday. I am amazed by the tenacity from my early working days, braving both the LRT and MRT at 6 a.m. until the ‘last train.’ But what I think about now is how I treated harassment inside the train cars as something normal. Or how I would constantly plan my route under the intersection overpass to avoid the construction workers at Roxas Boulevard, who liked to whistle and greet me with playful "Good morning ganda" while eyeing my skirt, my blouse, my body. Or how our office driver would touch my arms while driving in broad daylight to get me to my meeting. Or how his male head of department wouldn’t act upon this when I reported, and his male staff exited the room, leaving me in self-doubt. Or how, when I slaved for unpaid overtime until past 9 p.m. (and sometimes until early morning), I would run along the end of Buendia, clutching my bag tight, silently reciting all the protection prayers my mother taught me until I could find my ride. I hoped with all my might that my ride would keep to lighted areas, and take the main roads. I trained myself not to sleep in vehicles despite exhaustion, and I forced myself to bear the cycle — I knew all of these would be repeated the next day. For that first job, all these things simply went on for three years.
Fast forward a decade, I’ve become an urbanist learning to make cities work for women, and I look back on these while reflecting about all the feminist actions, rhetorics, and writing in the country. #HijaAko, the Safe Spaces Act, and educational pieces about Philippine feminists and the country’s feminism have all somehow contributed to making a more progressive environment.
But with regard to our cities, this fight has a long way to go. Cities have long been shaped to cater to men, standards for building are based on a man’s body, and spaces have long been designed by men, for men’s needs and uses. As feminist geographer Jane Darke says, “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass, and concrete.”
"Seoul has well-lit, pink parking spaces made with material that is “easier on high heels,” located closer to store entrances for women’s convenience. Sweden has night nurseries, which allow women with night jobs to do their work, and feel at ease about their children’s safety."
Kern writes how beginning to understand the feminist city begins with one’s own body. Take for example, how a pregnant woman or a menstruating young girl, who naturally frequents the toilet, would hardly find any clean, public bathrooms if they were out and about. A new mom would need safe and clean spaces for breastfeeding, but would she find that in our public areas? Would Filipinos, who are generally conservative, even accept her doing this? A single mother with small children will require places of rest, and yet, many of our cities have streets that stretch for kilometers without surfaces for sitting. An older woman may experience pain and difficulty walking, let alone climbing three stories to get to a MRT platform.
Gender mainstreaming in cities is tricky, but there have been thoughtful efforts to it. The city of Vienna, a gender mainstreaming pioneer for decades now, has redesigned parks to balance basketball courts with volleyball and badminton facilities to encourage girls to play sports alongside boys, among the city’s many other initiatives. Seoul has well-lit, pink parking spaces made with material that is “easier on high heels,” located closer to store entrances for women’s convenience. Sweden has night nurseries, which allow women with night jobs to do their work, and feel at ease about their children’s safety.
But urban innovations can only do so much. The burden of the pandemic and, in our setting, the horrors of extrajudicial killings have worsened the hostility of cities towards women. Widows and grandmothers of the drug war are shunned to the side streets, and are forced to continue unpaid care work for families left behind, something commonly expected of women. Globally, one in three women are reported to have experienced violence, per the World Health Organization, and the confinement to homes continues because of COVID-19.
Can a woman take her place in the Philippine city? Would she have the chance to shape it? Will our environment allow feminist places? These questions grapple with steep power relations, from our colonial past to our present authoritarian state. We are still at the level where a teenager has to school a misogynist television host about rape culture. We still live in a regime where a litany of offenses against women have left many feeling resigned; remarks about shooting vaginas can get away, and statements like telling working women leaders to "just maybe shut up" or calling them frauds are hailed by a certain population.
We have a long way to go. I imagine: What would Philippine cities look like if they were created by the working woman, the mother, the young girl, the widow, the indigenous woman, the lesbian, and the person who would be at the intersection of these descriptions? In our country, it’s already difficult to bring about urban transformation to have the bare minimum for better mobility and greener environments. Reshaping places for women shares some goals with these aspirations, the most common being an improved public realm. Better lighting and evenly paved sidewalks already promote safety, and creating spaces that support women’s multitasking activities are a few examples of addressing this.
My experience traversing Marikina to Pasay and back was long ago, but I still encounter harassment when I’m outdoors, I still feel fear. I’m sure many other women can say the same today. Despite this, pondering about a more feminist Philippine city also gives me hope.
Kern writes how a feminist city should be “care-centred,” in the sense that the city can enable us to “spread care more evenly.” Care manifests in so many things that the Filipino woman already does, from her work inside the home to organizing for causes, from supporting other women to leading much-needed changes in society. This care counters the shadow of dominance and hostility in our cities through the relations and friendships that we produce, and it even extends beyond our borders to other cities in the world through our nurses and caregivers. There is a quiet but certain power to this, but it still reveals something of great importance: Filipino women can, and will claim their place in the city.