The importance of creating 'Safe Spaces' for women

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Safe Spaces help women find their voice in a world that has often left them underrepresented, flat-out denied their existence, or worse, made attempts to erase them. Photo from GRRRL GANG MANILA/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On a sunny November afternoon in 2017, 15 women gathered in the West Wing Gallery of the UP Vargas Museum. The short-term objective was to create a quilt covered with slogans and imagery summing up our experiences (both good and bad — but mostly bad) of being female in today’s world, but for the moment, we just wanted to gather and talk. There was a long-term objective, and it was solidarity, but we weren’t talking about that just yet. We really just had to learn to be together.

At the time, local Twitter had not yet been taken by storm by Adrienne Onday, in her well-meaning attempt to open up a conversation about misogyny and gender-based violence in the Philippine indie music scene. It would also be a few more days before Judy Fugoso would speak to the media about being assaulted by artist Gaston Damag. Instead, we stitched while talking about the harrowing ordeal faced by Grrrl Gang Manila founder Mich Dulce after being groped on a sidewalk near Burgos Avenue in Makati.

Eventually, our own experiences of harassment and misogyny entered the conversation, but we were thrilled at there being any kind of conversation to begin with — especially one that could not only be had face-to-face, but in a Safe Space that was meant for women only.

There are implications that there are “certain things” no “respectable woman” would do, just as there are “certain things” that women who wish to remain respectable should do.

The history of Safe Spaces (in capitals, as opposed to spaces that could simply be described as safe) can be drawn from two different but occasionally overlapping contexts: those of academic freedom and those of gender-based expression. In both cases, the creation of a Safe Space was always intentional, with some made exclusive for members of particular communities.

Meant to protect those within it from feelings of judgment and acts of intolerance and violence, Safe Spaces freed their members to more openly express themselves, and helped them to find a voice in a world that has often left them underrepresented, flat-out denied their existence, or worse, made attempts to erase them.

Built on a respect for presence and ideas, Safe Spaces ultimately become about something else altogether: identity and subjectivity. We learn not only to become better feminists (read: better human beings), but we practice how this relates to becoming better citizens.

Reclaiming public spaces

Returning to that afternoon in November, what appeared to be a harmless gathering of like-minded women who enjoyed needlepoint was for the most part an initiative of our feminist group Grrrl Gang Manila (co-organized with The Vargas Museum as part of the public program of the contemporary art exhibition Green Go Home). By engaging a group in the slow, painstaking process of creating something with our own hands, we were hoping not only to draw attention to the radical potential of creative work, but the radical potential of claiming space for creating a community.

While it was the first time for Grrrl Gang to work with an art institution, members of the group were no strangers to working with the creative sector to push their advocacies forward. Just a few weeks prior, on Oct. 23, we were at Mow’s, a pub in Teacher’s Village, to talk about Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces (or SHIPS), following the cancellation of a concert headlined by Ducktails, a U.S.-based indie act, due to allegations of sexual misconduct against their lead singer, Matt Mondanile. Dressed in red hoods and white bonnets, we covered the basics of Violence Against Women (or VAW) as well as the legal options and remedies — or what little there were to resort to.

safe spaces risa hontiveros gigs manila music scene philippines.jpg Members of Grrrl Gang gathered at Mow’s Bar in Quezon City to show their support for the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act of 2017 or Senate Bill No. 1326 (SB 1326). Photo courtesy of ALICE SARMIENTO

On Dec. 12, members of Grrrl Gang would return to Mow’s, this time in support of the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act of 2017, or Senate Bill No. 1326 (SB 1326), which seeks to protect women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from harassment in public spaces, while empowering victims of gender-based violence to actively fight against harassers and assaulters to report incidents.

Under SB 1326, “catcalling, wolf-whistling, cursing, leering, groping, persistent requests for name and contact details and the use of words tending to ridicule on the basis of actual or perceived sex, gender expression, or sexual orientation and identity including sexist, homophobic and transphobic slurs in public spaces will be penalized.”

That these gatherings were held in bars is both a crucial element and a political statement. There are notions of places and spaces where no “respectable woman” would go, and bars tend to top this list; thus making it easy to see how the colloquialism “bar girl” can have such a malicious ring within the Filipino vocabulary. There are implications that there are “certain things” no “respectable woman” would do, just as there are “certain things” that women who wish to remain respectable should do.

Speaking about this “anti-women culture,” SB 1326 author, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, condemned what was then a recent spike in reports and allegations of gender-based violence. "There should be zero tolerance for misogyny and sexism wherever they take refuge," she stated.

SHIPS2.jpg Senate Bill No. 1326 seeks to protect women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community by penalizing Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces (or SHIPS). Photo from GRRRL GANG MANILA/TWITTER

#KababaeMongTao

Related to this rhetoric of “respectability” that has for so long contributed to the silencing and oppression of girls and women is this seemingly harmless clause: “kababae mong tao.”

The term has been adopted by Grrrl Gang, in collaboration with Chalk.ph, for Women’s Month as part of a campaign meant to subvert damaging stereotypes about femininity.

As something every Filipino girl has had to suffer through, the term “kababae mong tao” does not directly translate. It is both descriptive and normative, making claims about how things are and how things should be; yet, it is only after embedding itself so deeply into the vernacular that more women are beginning to sense its insidious objective of policing our bodies and behavior. And given the current political and cultural climate, we are seeing the power it has wielded over us, alongside our own power to shift the structural imbalances it has created.

More importantly, we are beginning to speak up. Beyond being “all talk,” feminist groups and Safe Spaces are where we enact the way that language has constructed barriers to empathy and understanding. Using words as weapons, we demonstrate how individual voices on social media can influence collective action. And while we may not always be the best examples of a society that learns from its history, we should know by now that a group heeding a call to action is disruptive, fascinating, and scary. It is also what every revolution needs.