women who walk

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“Once I began to look for the Flâneuse, I spotted her everywhere. I caught her standing on street corners in New York and coming through doorways in Kyoto, sipping coffee at café tables in Paris, at the foot of a bridge in Venice, or riding the ferry in Hong Kong. She is going somewhere or coming from somewhere; she is saturated with in-betweenness. She may be a writer, or she may be an artist, or she may be a secretary or an au pair. She may be a wife or a mother, or she may be totally free. She may take the bus or the train when she’s tired. But mostly, she goes on foot. She gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it.

I found many correspondences between them; these women all read from each other and learned from each other, and their readings branched outward and outward in a network so developed it resists cataloguing. The portraits I pain here attest that the flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”    – (Dr) Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.


Dr Elkin wrote this book specifically about the flâneuse, women who wander, so it makes sense that she speaks only of women and what it means for a woman to walk. But how does this apply to refugees, immigrants, people of color, etc? My feeling is that, when she speaks of “sipping coffee at café tables in Paris” there is still an element of privilege. There is privilege in being able to get to Paris (if it’s not your home city), for example but also in being welcomed to sit in cafés. (Would someone of refugee or immigrant status, someone whose language skills were limited or someone who appeared to be of “low income” be welcome in these cafés?)

I am not saying that *all* women have ease of movement – surely, even as a white woman, I have had various issues to contend with during my wanderings. I am only raising questions, for in Elkins’ book, when she speaks of “women” I have started to become hyper aware that her descriptions apply primarily to “white” women. I had loved reading this book but I’ve found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this general idea of “women”. Which women? I am granted access and permissions, with my white skin and financial means, that is not available to all women. Though I do completely agree with what Elkin says about how women are perceived, how “words like ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are used against women”, this means different things across various populations. All women share a particular struggle (especially in today’s political climate) but there are levels of “struggle” and I, as a white woman with an American passport have it significantly easier than other groups.

I had an interesting conversation with another instructor in Berlin about the idea of the flâneuse in regard to strolling down Sonnenallee in Berlin. Sonnenallee is a very particular, special area in Berlin where you can find several Arabic markets, restaurants, and services. I’ll talk more about it in a couple of posts dedicated to this pan-Arab space, but what I had observed there is myself, wandering alone, and Arab women walking in groups. One of the points often raised about the flâneuse is that women have, historically, been eyed up and assumed to be “ladies of the night” when seen out walking alone. At one time, it was just something that women didn’t do, daytime or otherwise. But I wondered what judgements would be made of an Arab woman in a burkha if she were seen out strolling alone, wandering “aimlessly” for her own enjoyment? I don’t know that she’d be labeled a “prostitute” for walking alone but I imagine she would still be noticed by the people who lived within her community. (In which case, maybe I’ve circled back around to what Elkin was saying. Maybe we *can* use the term “women” broadly. Perhaps all women have similar hurdles, similar judgements to cast off within their own social groups. Though I think we still need to be very careful about painting that broad stroke, as there are additional layers and prejudices for different groups of women.)


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