For our fourth Landscape Surgery of the autumn term, we were kindly joined by members of our affiliated research group, Geopolitics, Development, Security and Justice (GDSJ), to deliberate the notion of ‘safe space’. The surgery was chaired by Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway), and was divided into two presentations given by Dr Janet Bowstead (Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway) and Riina Lundman (Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Turku, Finland) respectively, before concluding with an open panel discussion that sought to think more broadly about the geographical importance of ‘safe space’ in today’s social and political climate.
From the outset, the task of defining ‘safe space’ presented itself as a challenging undertaking, perhaps a consequence of the expression’s resurgence within the public domain of late that has prompted rather unapologetic and heated debates “over what ‘safe spaces’ mean and if they should be encouraged and protected” (Djohari et al., 2018, p351). As noted within the latter group discussion, it seems as though the term has become obscured to negatively describe ‘sanitised’ spaces of ‘free expression’, often being paired with other culturally loaded neologisms such as ‘snowflake generation’ and ‘political correctness’ to incite adverse confrontations of speech (Djohari et al., 2018). Whilst these particular mobilisations of the term cannot be ignored, Katherine noted that ‘safe space’ in its most rudimentary form, describes:
“A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” – (Oxford dictionary)
Indeed, when probed further this particular explanation raises important questions surrounding the theorisation of the material, physical, emotional and imagined capacity of ‘safe spaces’. However, it is starkly apparent that the concept is inherently contested, diverse and subjective, meaning that no solitary definition is ever quite appropriate, and its geographical relevance is substantially entwined within ever expansive political and social webs of understanding.
To highlight the individuality of our own perceptions of ‘safe space’, the session’s convenor, Katherine Brickell, encouraged the group to mental map our own spaces of safety through the medium of language and illustration. As a critical methodology, mental mapping has been utilised by feminist geographers to allow participants to reflexively consider their own “geographical imaginations and complex identity negotiations” in relation to social locations (Jung, 2012, p985). In this sense, mental maps are not solely reflections of an individual’s cognitive identity, but are a multi-layered artefact rife with emotion, impression and knowledge.
Among the group, the home and the bedroom featured heavily as perceived sites of safety. Whilst this is unsurprising given the popular tropes of peace and security that resonate in imaginations of the domestic, it is evident that for many the home is deeply unsafe, with 1.9 million adults in the England and Wales experiencing abuse within the home in 2017 alone (ONS, 2017). For others, ‘safe space’ was recognised to be unbound by specific locations, but as visceral encounters between friends, family, animals and nature. Similarly, for some, safe space is temporally attached to particular hours of the day, fleeting feelings of comfort found in the early morning or the last few moments before nightfall.
A mental map of my own safe spaces. Source: Authors own, 2018.
Our first speaker, Dr Janet Bowstead, is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. Janet conducts interdisciplinary research that cuts across geography, sociology and social policy to examine strategies of safety for women who have suffered from domestic violence. In her presentation, entitled: “Safe Spaces of Refuge, Shelter and Contact”, sought to consider service responses to women and girls at risk of abuse in both the global North and South by examining a forthcoming selection of articles in the journal of Gender, Place and Culture.
Janet begun by suggesting that safe spaces of shelter have the potential to offer freedom to victims of violence when (1) explicit boundary work is done to carve out safe spaces in hostile environments, (2) the practices for ensuring safety are central in allowing women to evoke relational place-making performances, and (3) the shelter becomes a temporary contact zone of refuge, safety and autonomy.
Thinking specifically about research conducted by the ASPIRE Project (Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience) that examined community-led responses to violence against immigrant and refugee women in Australia, Janet noted that minority groups of women face unique barriers when attempting to access domestic violence services (Murray et al., forthcoming). For instance, many women travelled long distances or entirely relocated to gain access to help, yet once they had moved were judged or shamed by other members of their community for leaving violent relationships. Moreover, language barriers between shelters and vulnerable women ultimately impacted their overarching perceptions of safety, as services could not regularly provide appropriate interpreters with correct ethical training, resulting in women feeling fearful that confidentiality breaches could leave them at risk.
Similarly, research conducted in shelter homes in Eastern India by Mima Guha (forthcoming) found that shelters can prevent emotional healing from abuse by enforcing punitive measures, leaving women feeling isolated and punished for their experience as victims. As Janet further highlighted, some protection schemes in East Indian shelters showed evidence of mistreatment by the state and families to punish ‘sexually deviant’ young women for eloping with partners without familial consent. In these cases, women’s subversive sexual behaviour became reframed as ‘victimhood’, resulting in alleged ‘safe spaces’ becoming a site in which to control and manage female agency under the guise of state protection and rehabilitation.
It is clear that “women need to be safe from abuse before they can be safe to achieve wider control, autonomy and freedom” (Lewis et al, 2015 n.p.). As such, it is necessary for shelters and refuges to offer support throughout the emotional stages of recovery and empowerment following abuse. For Janet, this is carried out through the nature of the safety, and by the nature of the space. For instance, shelters with communal facilities produce a very different rehabilitation programme than those with self-contained flats. Likewise, shelters that implement collaborative participatory creative outputs ‘can enable processes of self-help and collective support to counteract the isolation of abuse and to help prepare women for their lives after the refuge’ (Bowstead for RGS-IBG, 2017). However, this is not to suggest that the onus for rehabilitation is solely the role of shelters and the individuals themselves. Instead, it is critical that discussions on ‘safe space’ continue to be opened up and dissected to generate a new narrative for a human rights approach that allows women to feel truly, and unequivocally, safe and free within society.
Indeed, as Janet’s presentation summarised, safe spaces across the global North and South are not static or singular in their ability to afford safety and freedom for women. However, “temporary spaces of shelter, refuge and contact can be powerful places of protection and recovery” (Bowstead, 2018 in presentation) that can transform lives, inspire collective support and encourage wider societal change in attitudes towards women who have experienced violence.
Our second speaker, Dr Riina Lundman, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, with interests in urban studies, public space and creative geographies. Riina’s presentation continued the session theme and discussed the idea of ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly.
Paraphrasing Furedi (2002: n.p.), Riina suggested that “safety has become one of Western society’s fundamental values”, as organisations, institutions and social groups strive to offer diverse spaces of inclusivity, to which everyone feels welcome. However, for Riina, ‘safe space’ is intrinsically paradoxical by nature. If one space is safe, does that mean all others are unsafe? And if that is the case, is it possible to generate a new ‘safe(r) space’ attitude that reduces the disparity?
In response, Riina argues that a ‘safe(r) space’ narrative could be pivotal in bridging this gap, particularly in Finland where social and political knowledges on ‘safe space’ are yet to build substantial prominence within legal research. As such, Riina is currently in the process of investigating Finnish laws and policies to examine what safe(r) spaces could mean for elderly people, and moreover, the kinds of solutions that could be implemented to allow a more sustainable practice for creating and managing elderly spatial safety.
Following Koskela’s (2009) dimensions of safety and security, Riina illustrated that in order for senior care homes to become safe(r) safes, they should cohere to the following aspects: (1) be well calculated and measured, (2) designed to be experienced and to feel personal, (3), respect cultural differences and structural duties of care, (4) have strong social elements to reduce isolation, (5) be imaginative and creative, and finally, (6) have these ideals manifested in physical and material elements, rather than allowing the notion of safety to exist solely on a theoretical basis.
However, as one would expect, the generational group of the elderly is incredibly diverse, from differences in social, cultural and political values, to what is needed and required from a medical standpoint to ensure that a space is entirely safe. With this in mind, Riina is sympathetic that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ formula to generating ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly, but rather that there is a wealth of work to be done in social and legal policy to enable the best care to be given.
For Riina, much of this can be done by confronting the negative stigmas of ageism and ableism that frequently infiltrate discussions on senior safety. By looking at specific case examples of senior co-housing communities that offer more relaxed approaches to elderly care, for instance the Loppukiri in Helsinki that provides private housing clustered around communal spaces, Riina is hopeful that spatio-legal approaches to safe(r) spaces will begin to adopt a far more open and accepting attitude towards elderly care.
We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Katherine, Janet and Riina for their fantastic Landscape Surgery session, and for their continued work in sustaining what can be extremely difficult conversations regarding safe space.
Bowstead, J. (2017) AC2017 – Geographies of Safe Space (1): Spaces of embodiment, identity and education. [online] Conference.rgs.org. Available at: http://conference.rgs.org/AC2017/315.
Djohari, N., Pyndiah, G. and Arnone, A. (2018) Rethinking ‘safe spaces’ in children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies, 16(4), pp.351-355.
Furedi, F. (2002) Epidemic of Fear | Frank Furedi. [online] Frankfuredi.com. Available at: http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/epidemic_of_fear.
Guha, M (2018) ‘Safe spaces’ and ‘bad’ girls: Child-marriage victims experiences from a shelter home in Eastern India. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)
Jung, H. (2012) Let Their Voices Be Seen: Exploring Mental Mapping as a Feminist Visual Methodology for the Study of Migrant Women. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp.985-1002.
Koskela, H. (2009) The Spiral of Fear: Politics of Fear, Security Business, and the Struggle over Urban Space. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.
Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J. and Redpath, R. (2015) ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), pp.1-14.
Murray, L., Warr, D., Chen, J., Block, K., Murdolo, A., Quiazon, R., Davis, E., Vaughan, C. (2018) Between ‘here’ and ‘there’: family violence against immigrant and refugee women in urban and rural Southern Australia. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)
Ons.gov.uk. (2017) Domestic abuse in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017.
Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe.