Opinion piece

On the merits and drawbacks of establishing a women’s space in a project committed to treating everybody equally

In 2023, the team of our intercultural makerspace Habibi.Works in Katsikas, Northern Greece, explored the idea to set up a women’s space within the project’s premises. This idea might not seem overly controversial, yet the team carefully assessed potential unintended, negative consequences, weighing the pros and cons of establishing a gender-specific space in a project that wants to treat everybody equally. 


Habibi.Works, with its many community spaces and working areas (from wood work over bike repair and sewing, up to 3D printing) was among the first introducing the makerspace approach within the so-called humanitarian context surrounding the European asylum system. This approach, together with a firm set of values, aims to inspire a shift: away from consolidating dependencies, towards co-creating agency (and thus dignity) in the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. The values at the project’s core, alongside a strong sense of solidarity and the deep belief that every person is the expert of their own life, include equality and respect.

Past Approaches to Separate Spaces
Before the pandemic, Habibi.Works accommodated a “Beauty Salon” – a shared space functioning as a men’s Barber Shop in the mornings, and as a women’s Beauty Salon in the afternoons. We enjoyed this solution of a co-owned self-care space, as it expressed shared responsibility, understanding and mutual respect. During the pandemic however, due to distancing requirements and hosting capacity, the space was needed to accommodate our Bike Repair Station. The unfortunate consequence of moving the Barber&Beauty into a new, smaller space was the loss of most participants identifying as women. When their involvement didn’t increase again for many months, our team raised the question whether in fact a separated women’s space was needed in Habibi.Works 

Reflexions and Doubts
While the option of setting up a women’s space in a mostly male-dominated surrounding seems like a logical step, it raised concerns, too. As mentioned in the introduction, in Habibi.Works, we deeply believe in the idea of treating people “at eye-level”, regardless of aspects like gender or nationality. We never consciously enhance gender-segregation, neither in daily life tasks (e.g. cooking or cleaning) nor in working areas traditionally associated with “male” or “female” expertise (e.g. sewing or wood work) – even in cases in which participants explicitly ask for such segregations. We believe men and women (and everybody identifying outside this traditional binary) are equal in abilities and rights. We want to work towards a society where all of us can be present in the same space in a safe, comfortable and self-efficacious way. What to do though until we will have reached this state?
The developments around our Beauty Salon sparked a bigger discussion. Should we offer an exclusive space for women as long as they were underrepresented in the common spaces? Or could this hinder their participation and representation in the shared spaces, by making the exclusive space the new default? Wouldn’t the slow encouragement and support of women in the use of shared spaces be the more fruitful approach in the long run? Wouldn’t it be important to create awareness among our male-identifying participants for the matter? Wasn’t creating a women’s space an easy solution that could be used as an alibi, instead of pursuing these approaches? 

The Current Approach

In the case of our Barber& Beauty space, we felt we needed to acknowledge the reality that men and women do not always feel equally safe and comfortable in a space (yet), including in Habibi.Works. The new women’s space wants to do justice to this reality.
At the same time, we defined clear guidelines regarding the use of the new space in order to avoid it becoming the new default for female-identifying participants in Habibi.Works – especially for those who have already confidently used the entire space up to now.  We want to prevent the scenario in which slowly but surely, a small assemblage of Habibi.Works’ working equipment migrates into the women’s space and thus reinforces segregation. Therefore, all activities that don’t focus on body/hair will continue to take place in spaces used by all. Ensuring that these spaces are safe and comfortable for everybody is our shared responsibility.

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