Toward more inclusive public spaces: Learning from the everyday experiences of Muslim Arab women in New York City

Johnson, A.M. & Miles, R.

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Johnson, A. M., & Miles, R. (2014). Toward more inclusive public spaces: Learning from the everyday experiences of Muslim Arab women in New York City. Environment and Planning A, 46(8), 1892–1907.

Accessibility , Democracy , Diversity , Lefebvre's Triad , Muslim Arab Women , Phenomenology , Public Space , Walkability

In this study we examine the spatial practices and lived experiences of an understudied subgroup, observant Muslim women of Arab descent, to explore the extent to which they experience representation and inclusion in the context of Brooklyn, New York. In an attempt to provide a more in-depth understanding of space, we utilize a phenomenological approach in which gender is central. We conceptualize our analysis based on Lefebvre’s spatial triad. The narratives of the women in this study elucidate how they interpret and navigate publicly accessible urban spaces as women marked by both ethnicity and religious difference in a multicultural city such as New York. Our study finds that the physical accessibility of public spaces, the aspect that planners tend to emphasize, matters for the observant Muslim women in this study both in ways with which planners are familiar and in other ways. The main aspects of physical accessibility that facilitated their sense of inclusion and engagement in Bay Ridge public spaces are the ease of getting around, often called ‘walkability’ in planning circles, the extent of access to mass transit, and the types of destinations in the area. Streetlights and the openness of public spaces were also critical to participants’ lived experiences, as was the presence of a number of women wearing the Islamic headscarf. The latter enabled participants to become active actors in space because they marked a place as culturally, religiously, and socially appropriate for them. Participants’ lived experiences (representational space) in turn shaped and were shaped by the characteristics of physical space. For example, well-lit open spaces enabled their spatial engagement because this made them visible to the community and at the same time allowed them to see the community. For immigrant women the Arabic landscape of the neighborhood marked by the Arabic signage, the Arabic language being spoken, and women wearing the Islamic headscarf provided them an opportunity to communicate with other women who share their cultural and religious values (spatial practice), and thereby to experience a safe space of normalcy (representational space).

Main finding
This article suggests walking as a critical component of Muslim Arab Women's (MAWs) control over their spatial practice which is also tied to notions of reputation and representations of Islam through their embodied practices. Physical accessibility to public spaces mattered for MAWs in ways familiar and unfamiliar to planners such as in: walkability, types of destinations near the home, lighting, and the presence of muhajjibat (women in Islamic headscarves) marking it as a place socially appropriate for them. Places felt less 'public' to the MAWs when they were controlled by the state or by surveillance cameras. Desire for ease of access (being walkable/close by) and the affordance of casual social interactions were important to the MAWs. Spatial openness and the ability to see and be seen enhanced safety among the women.

Description of method used in the article
Fieldwork included 30-60 minute in-depth interviews with nine observant Muslim Arab woman who wore Islamic headscarves. Interviews were analyized for accessibility and desirability of public space and interpreted with Lefebvre's triad.

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