This article has been developed by Flavia Ceccarelli and Jeanne Martin.
It’s Monday and our volunteers are already in front of the door of the Kindergarten, waiting for the women coming from the Nea Kavala refugee camp. As soon as the bus arrives and they begin to join them, the atmosphere heats up. They greet each other hugging and smiling enthusiastically.
At OCC Greece, Monday is a particular day: we don’t hold classes and the afternoon is entirely dedicated to the Women’s Space, an activity held by the OCC (female) volunteers for the women from the refugee community. During these afternoons, we are locked in Kindergarten, and curtains are closed, so no one can see us from the outside. This is how we create a very intimate and private atmosphere. Indeed, the idea is to have a safe space where they can blow off some steam, sharing their thoughts and feelings while building trustworthy relationships outside of the camp and their familial duties. That is why, while the women are in Women’s Space, we offer to take care of their kids outside the Kindergarten. Here, we listen and understand each other, and everything is accepted and free of judgment. There are no social or identity rules to abide by, and one can feel free to be both unique and part of the collective.
We spend time together through a wide range of activities depending on what these women wish to do. Most of the time we dance to Arabic and Farsi music. They usually take off their bulkier clothes so that they can move more easily. It is amazing to see them dancing freely, letting themselves go to the sound of music. The more confident ones show the more timid ones new movements, and everyone can learn typical dances of each other’s countries. This is also a good moment for strengthening bonds among women coming from many different backgrounds. Some of them prefer to remain sitting down clapping their hands to keep the rhythm. They look at the dancers full of goodwill and care and, from time to time, some of them join the ones dancing, following their movements.
Why is this space reserved for women only? A historical background
Non-mixed spaces are defined by the sociologist, Irene Kaufer as: “momentary and punctual spaces reserved for people sharing a particular experience, notably linked to systemic discrimination, thus temporarily excluding people who are considered oppressive”. In this way, non-mixity spaces can constitute a space of liberation of social control and contribute to the construction of solidarity and of social links which help the empowerment of individuals.
Since the 70s, non-mixity spaces have flourished as a means to punctually reserve a space for social groups perceived as socially oppressed. Indeed, some researchers such as Christine Delphy (1977) showed that in mixed groups oppression tends to be reproduced. The presence of men can also discourage women from speaking about certain topics such as sexual violence or harassment. Researchers indeed showed that people victims of inequalities tend to express themselves more when they are in a safe place, in the comfort of “entre-soi”. Non-mixed groups were first implemented by women’s movements in Spain during the civil war. They used to carry out literacy campaigns and political and medical training. It then spread in the USA in the 60s. Non-mixity was considered a first step toward the collective liberation of speech, helping topics considered as “less important” to gain more visibility.
In other words, these spaces are useful (1) to avoid the reproduction of domination, (2) to foster auto-emancipation, empowerment of socially oppressed groups, and (3) to create connections and trustworthy relations between a community.
At the Women’s Space, one can also feel like being in a beauty salon! Indeed, we normally do make-up and paint each other’s nails. We also sew and make henna tattoos. It is delightful to see that everyone has something to show and teach someone else. Lately, we also practiced photography and played some music. All the activities aim at taking care of women’s mental and physical well-being, considering that they are living in a difficult and anxious environment.
At 7:30 pm, the bus arrives to pick them up and go back to the camp. Every time we have to rush because we are always immersed in our activities and don’t realize that time has already run out. So we get ready, many of them put their hijabs back on and the warm greetings begin again. We each return to our own lives but are grateful to have had two hours of escape from our responsibilities and worries.
Every Monday is unique but what never changes is the feeling of being immersed in an atmosphere of sisterhood and deep trust.