On women’s right to exist in public space

An act as simple as running outdoors can be a revolutionary one for women when the privilege to safely navigate public space is not afforded to them.

Recently, I went running in the rain for the first time. It was also the first time that I had ever gone for a run outdoors in my own country.

Like any woman who navigates public space in Kosovo, I am subjected to catcalling, harassment and unwelcome stares as I traverse the streets of Prishtina, which seem to always be filled with traffic and under a permanent state of construction. 

This is why I haven’t exactly been enthusiastic at the prospect of exercising outdoors, but this time was different. 

Being in isolation since the beginning of March because of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought stress and anxiety, with Kosovo’s political crises adding insult to injury and threats of a spike in social and economic inequality bubbling under the surface. Stuck at home, my body was aching to experience the outside world, longing for movement and the open air. 

As soon as I went outside and my legs started moving, I felt alive again. I put one foot in front of the other, getting faster and faster, and felt my mood lighten instantly. I was running out of breath and the rain was pouring unapologetically down my face, but the freedom I felt was empowering. 

Shaking from the shock of such rapid movement as I was waiting for my take-away coffee, I realised how trapped my body had been feeling, how much it needed to breathe outside the four walls of my apartment. 

Occupying public space for sport and exercise has always been a privilege held by men, one that only a few women are able to enjoy. Kosovo has moved forward in recent years, though, and more women are enjoying hiking, cycling and working out outdoors – things that men can do routinely and without fear. 

Athletes Uta Ibrahimi and Arineta Mula are two of the most obvious examples when it comes to Kosovo women exploring nature, both having climbed the highest peaks of the world, including Mount Everest. But my concern does not lie with the exceptional women who make it to the top. It lies with the need to fight against a deeply rooted culture of gendered violence, and the struggle for women to exist freely and fearlessly in the outside world. 

Sexual harassment, (fear of) rape, objectification, and verbal abuse are always present, reminding us that the outdoors is a violent and unsafe male space that leaves some women no choice but to isolate themselves year round, pandemic or no pandemic, in order to protect themselves.

The discussion of women’s ownership over their bodies and the right to outdoor exercise should not be reduced merely to fitness goals, or ‘self care.’ Unfortunately the concept of self care, which generally applies to eating well, resting sufficiently, and exercising to maintain physical and emotional health, has now evolved into a capitalist notion used by commercial brands for sponsored posts on social media. 

But anyone who understands the painful struggle for women’s ‘right to exist’ understands that self care does not mean a nutrition-dense smoothie or an expensive and complicated skincare regime, as health bloggers and internet personalities would like us to believe.

For women, practicing self care requires the demanding task of claiming our physical safety and health as a fundamental right. This is an arduous process that involves repeatedly explaining and justifying what is an undeniable (yet largely unattainable) right for women: the time and opportunity and to invest in one’s physical and emotional health.

How does one achieve this when women are responsible for never-ending house work, when entrenched social customs and practices dictate that a woman’s job is to take care of others’ physical and emotional needs? 

Self care for women in violent patriarchal contexts is a flat concept. It is as deceiving to the deep problem of misogyny as detox tea or cleansing juices ads on social media are to a proper and nourishing diet.  

“I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal more than half a century ago. Such a yearning for physical adventure, be it a simple run in the rain or a climb to the peaks of the world’s highest mountains, is a call for a new culture: one that insists on safe public spaces, invites women back to nature, and puts women’s fear of men to rest.

Illustration: Jete Dobranja.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.


31 May 2020 - 12:12

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