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    Women´s city

    - geography of fear?

    Maria Seppälä


Hille Koskela, MA´s doctoral dissertation deals with the gender of space and the city of surveillance cameras

The women´s city is different from the men´s. For example, parks and yards are women and children´s areas during the daytime, whereas at night they turn into frightening places that are to be avoided. "The characteristics of danger are different by day and by night," says Hille Koskela of the Department of Geography at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Science.

The title of Koskela´s thesis is "Fear, control and space - geographies of gender, fear of violence and video surveillance" , and it belongs to the field of planning geography. She defended her dissertation last May, and the thesis is so far only available in English. The division of space by gender, fear and violence are central issues in her research. In her thesis, she has also researched surveillance cameras, and the new urban space created by their use.

For her thesis, Koskela interviewed women aged 20-43, mostly from the Helsinki metropol-itan area. She also collected by mail stories about fear from women all over Finland. Women answering her questionnaire were aged 26 to 82. She also interviewed women in Edinburgh, Scotland. For background information, she used crime statistics to discover the nature and amount of reported crime.

"In Great Britain and the United States, there has been interdisciplinary research on women´s urban fear since the beginning of the 1980s, but this research is relatively new in Finland," Koskela says. The thesis presents findings that are based on geographical differences. Women´s night-time urban fears are not based on darkness. Finnish women are equally afraid on summer nights, when there is sufficient light. Koskela uses the term "social night" to describe the phenomenon.

Fear of violence is a social fear

"Women are afraid of men, and men are afraid of men," Koskela simplifies the matter. However, men´s fear of violence is different. "Men are afraid of getting into a fight at the snack stand after a night in the bars. They find the most densely populated places the most frightening, like the city centre on weekends, after the bars and restaurants have closed," says Koskela and continues, "women, on the other hand, prefer routes that are populated. They are afraid of side streets and underground passages. These places are made scary by the fact that they offer the potential attacker somewhere to hide. Even shouting for help won´t do any good, if there is nobody around to hear you."

It is important to recognise the fact that although fear is expressed on an individual level, it is always a social phenomenon. Women´s withdrawal from a space is part of a complicated network of power structures, and it does not happen because of individual women or men. The relation between the urban space and women has become ambivalent. On the one hand, it has liberated the woman socially and sexually when compared to a traditional agrarian community, in which the social control and codes of behaviour were strict. On the other hand, women are now controlled in other ways. "The threat of violence, and even actual rapes and attacks isolate the women from the space, and make them monitor their own behaviour," Koskela says.

Koskela´s thesis is one of the first internationally significant studies in research on how women try to overcome their fears. She calls the results stories of courage. She quotes a story in which one of her subjects tells about her experience, descriptive of women´s ability and will to control their fear.

"Once I was about to go there (to a summer cottage) with my friend...and then my friend couldn´t make it...I thought, yes, I will go there (alone). And in the first night I took a Bible and a wine bottle to the table, and thought that if I don´t cope with this, I´ll never cope with anything. I didn´t read the Bible, but I drank the bottle of wine, and ever since that I had enough courage to stay in that cottage."

Nadja 39 (in interview)

The stories of courage are consequently followed by an analysis of what Koskela calls Ôthe breakings´. "Fear and the loss of courage are emotions that are effected by personal changes in one´s life, such as sudden illness, death of a loved one, or pregnancy ," says Koskela and continues "I call the situations Ôthe breakings´, when women who previously have had no problem moving around at night time regress into hermits staying at home after an act of violence towards them. It may happen that they no longer go out to town at all after dark, at least not on their own."

Fear does not show in statistics

One of the most interesting issues in the thesis is how fear is born, and how women cope with it. For example, knowledge of a crime that took place in a certain area creates anxiety and fear. The crime may have happened years ago, but women avoid those places, because they have a bad reputation among the citizens. Rumours and urban legends, as well as the media, sometimes add to the fear of certain places.

Women´s confidence grows as they learn to know the city well enough to choose their own routes, and avoid those places that they find frightening. As they move around the city at night-time, they constantly scan their surroundings. The signs of danger are not obvious, as people read them differently. "In the past, punk rockers caused palpitations to middle-aged and older women, because the visual iconography of the sub-culture seemed aggressive. But anyone acquainted with youth cultures knew that the punk rockers´ ideology was quite the opposite, it was against violence," Koskela clarifies.

In her thesis, Koskela also wanted to express the fact that the statistics of violent crime are not the sole explanatory factors in studying women´s experiences of fear in the city. "Firstly, fear is not related to actual crime, but to those social power structures that exist between the sexes. Secondly, there is much more sexual crime than ever gets reported to the police." The geography of fear creates its own maps, despite the opinions of the civil service or the statistics.

Survey and punish?

Surveillance cameras were developed mostly as a tool for the police and the security business to solve crimes and facilitate the identification of the offender. But they also make it possible to intrude and control. As surveillance cameras become more common, there is a possibility that the material may end up in the wrong hands.

Koskela examines the relationship between urban space under surveillance and fear. In Finland, there are surveillance cameras in nearly every building, especially in the city centres, since there is nothing in the legislation to control the use of them. "Anyone can get a surveillance camera. They don´t even cost much nowadays. It is odd that there´s all this bureaucracy and a veritable jungle of permits, before you can busk on the streets, or sell your own handicrafts, but you can shoot video of people and save the material without any permission whatsoever, and without the people on film ever even knowing about it," Kos-kela sums up. The central issue is that people do not know who monitors them, and where.

Koskela wanted to discover whether women´s sense of security increases with the increase in surveillance. She interviewed women in an Edinburgh shopping mall in Scotland, asking them if they were aware of being on one or more surveillance monitors at that very moment. Most of them were unaware of this. "The sense of security was not increased by the knowledge of surveillance, but rather by knowledge of who was doing it, and whether it was possible to contact the surveillance personnel in threatening situations. Quite often, the surveillance videos are only examined afterwards, and there is nobody present at the actual time of the event. One could also ask in whose interests it is that surveillance happens on such a large scale. In the final analysis, is it in anybody´s interests that there´s an increase in a control mechanism of which most people on the streets and in department stores are not even aware?" Koskela asks.