🌊 How illiberalism threatens the urban freedoms of women and marginalised groups

In recent decades, real progress has been made toward inclusivity in urban policies and access to urban spaces. Cătălina Frâncu warns these gains are now under threat. Here, she explores the impact of illiberalism on the exclusion of women and marginalised groups from urban public spaces

Women and minorities in the city

The foundation stone of the ancient city holds the names of its citizens... but only the patricians' — men, rich, the ruling class. Historically, women and slaves had no access to politics, neither could they speak in agoras. Over thousands of years, women and marginalised groups have fought for their right to the city — what French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefevbre defines as the right to be, act on, influence, and shape public space.

The past few decades have witnessed change for the better, particularly in Western European democracies. However, illiberal regimes are rising again, particularly in Eastern Europe. Under such administrations, the urban environment risks becoming inhospitable to women and minorities once more.

Losing one’s right to the city

Most people who travel on foot or use public transport to get around are women. Women also tend to be the victims of street harassment, as men assert their power to control women's bodies. This alone generates enough stress for women to develop energy-consuming coping mechanisms. They become adept at avoiding certain areas; are extra cautious after dark; keep their eyes down to avoid the male gaze... they walk fast, ignore catcalls... All this means that women are denied substantial freedoms of their own cities.

Women need public facilities more often than men. Yet safe public toilets are scarce, as are safe public spaces and a coherent public transport network. Age, class, and sexuality — but also ethnicity — are, thus, defining factors in people's experience of urban space.

Women are extra cautious after dark, walk fast, and keep their eyes down to avoid the male gaze... All this means that women are denied substantial freedoms of their own cities

Lately, liberal administrations have made progress on this front. Since the 1990s, for example, Vienna's city administration has included gender mainstreaming in its urban practice. However, many former Eastern Bloc countries have yet to start their journey towards inclusion. This is why the illiberal discourse against ‘gender ideology’ also poses a threat to any progress on spatial equity.

Illiberalism and democratic backsliding

Illiberalism is the political ideology that stems from a backlash to liberal democracy. It discursively appropriates the concept of 'democracy', while backsliding on the instruments that keep a state from becoming authoritarian. These instruments include the separation of powers, fair elections, human rights, and checks and balances.

Hungary's President Viktor Orbán was the first to coin the term 'illiberal democracy'. Orbán leads a government that blames minorities for the shortcomings of the state, advances a strict anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, opposes human rights, and restricts women’s bodily autonomy. All the while, of course, his administration claims to be democratic.

In Hungary, illiberalism has become the dominant ideology amid alarmist discourse on minority ethnicities, particularly Muslim refugees and Roma people. The government promotes its illiberal ideology under the guise of a slight paradigm shift intended to solve temporary crises. Together with the tactics mentioned above, all this contributes to Hungary's de-democratisation. Such anti-pluralist social policies thus lead to illiberal urban planning.

Influences on urban practice

The symbolic glue of Hungary's right-wing politicians is ‘gender ideology’. Politicians reference the rise of such ideology to radicalise citizens against liberal democracy, pushing for conservative and, sometimes, authoritarian changes to the political apparatus. Hungary refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention preventing violence against women. Poland delayed signing the Convention for three years, under the pretext that it was loaded with ‘gender ideology’. In the same way, illiberal regimes may resist gender-mainstreaming urban practices and minority inclusion. Thus, the little progress made so far stands at risk of being reversed.

Hungarian politicians reference the rise of 'gender ideology' to radicalise citizens against liberal democracy, pushing for authoritarian changes to the political apparatus

In Hungary, disadvantaged minorities remain the target of illiberal administrations implementing 'smart urbanism', which is a front for surveillance. Thus, the government exploits technology to exclude minorities from urban life.

Excluding minorities, excluding women

Women and minorities can experience discrimination, even in a liberal climate. But explicit exclusionary discourse remains unacceptable in liberal democracies, which tend to develop and apply strategies to right the wrongs. Illiberalism, on the other hand, is fundamentally incompatible with pluralism.

To illiberal incumbents throughout the continent, the Roma people are scapegoats for crime and poverty. The Fidesz administration in Miskolc, Hungary, used exclusionary urban planning strategies to control law and order. Miskolc was suffering high unemployment and rising crime. The incumbents’ remedy was simply to 'clear away' the city’s slums and introduce 'smart city' surveillance cameras. The majority of slum dwellers were Roma, whom the authorities evicted without proper compensation.

The government used CCTV cameras to further control people's access to the city centre. Their presence normalised surveillance for safety, but it now raises concerns about privacy, racial profiling, and social control — especially when operated by an illiberal administration. Yet, Miskolc's increased surveillance strategy failed: poverty generated by discrimination and unemployment merely shifted to the city's outskirts, conveniently out of sight.

Increased use of urban CCTV normalises surveillance for safety, but also raises concerns about privacy, racial profiling, and social control

Women in Hungary are not an explicit urban policy target. They have, however, been subject to body control in the form of draconian abortion laws and by their President's refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention.

Urban spaces: a battlefield for some

Throughout history, women and marginalised groups have been excluded from urban spaces. In recent decades, these groups have succeeded in making some progress in Western and Central European liberal democracies, through gender mainstreaming, inclusive design, and integrated urban planning. But all this now risks being undone by illiberal administrations that maintain their opposition to ‘gender ideology’ to fight progress towards inclusion.

My earlier example from Miskolc is among the first documented uses of urban instruments (presented as 'smart city tools') to control the population. In that instance, Roma people were the specific target. For women, access to public space is already a battlefield. Street harassment is just one barrier in the way of their right to the city, along with poor public transport, lack of urban facilities, and outdated infrastructure. Under illiberal administrations, women’s voices, safety, and access to the city all remain in danger.

No.34 in a thread on the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics

This blog piece was written for the course 'Gendering Illiberalism', co-designed and co-taught by Andrea Pető (with TA Irfana Khatoon) and Alina Dragolea (with TA Oana Dervis) sponsored by CIVICA alliance universities Central European University (CEU) and the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA).

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Cătălina Frâncu
Cătălina Frâncu
Master's Candidate, Gender, Minorities and Policy Studies, National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest / Deputy Editor, Zeppelin Architecture Magazine

Cătălina is an architect currently working on an analysis of the dimension of gender in Romania’s governmental development strategies for territory.

Zeppelin Architecture Magazine

She is an editor and ongoing contributor to Zeppelin Architecture Magazine and has been involved in various projects with the Romanian Order of Architects on urban inclusion, architectural market analysis, built heritage, and other matters.

She is coordinating the current issue of Analize Journal of Feminist Studies on Illiberalism, Gender, and Urban Planning, and she is an active member of the first feminist NGO in Romania, The Romanian Society for Feminist Analysis AnA.

Cătălina graduated in architecture from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville.

Oameni la lucru in casele lor

She is a contributor to Oameni la lucru în casele lor [At Work At Home]
Universitara Ion Mincu, 2021

Among other writings, Cătălina has a monograph forthcoming on the Romanian architecture office ADN BA.

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