Violence Against Femininity – Can Design Deconstruct Cultural Behaviours?

Violence against women is the quintessential wicked problem: seemingly intractable, culturally specific, and as old as humanity itself. What Design Can Do has begun to tackle it, starting with research in São Paulo, as a first step towards a possible new design challenge. As the research partners of WDCD, we were invited to design a breakout session for the conference. In collaboration with Renata Costa and Paula Dib, we hosted the session ’Deconstruct Cultural Behaviours’, aimed at designing new questions that might inspire designers to look at the topic from new perspectives. 

Our first step was to reframe the research question, from “What can design do to address violence against women?”, to What can design do to address violence against femininity?”
This shift allowed us to approach this ‘wicked problem’ from a wide range of perspectives, and bring in voices that are sometimes unheard in the debate, including that of men and the LGBTQ community.

Curating The Discussion

We worked with fascinating local and Dutch experts. Each brought a unique perspective to the table, helping to enrich the discussion. For the designers joining the session, it was a great opportunity to ask questions and think out loud together with the experts.

The discussion ranged from violence against women in the public domain, domestic violence, objectification of women, and prostitution, to lack of acceptance of transgender people and rigid perceptions of masculinity.

We were joined by Jolanda de Boer and Martin Witteveen, of the Public Prosecutor Office in Amsterdam. Jolanda brought the stories of young girls who have fallen victims to human trafficking, women who have been brought to Amsterdam to work in the Red Light District, and have been exploited for years by their pimp. Martin shed light on the patterns of violence, and the significant role the community can play in connecting victims of violence to  the available sources of help and support.

The designer Neon Cunha, a trans woman, joined us to lead the discussion over violence against transgender people. Neon was the first person in Brazil to obtain a name and gender rectification in official documentation in court. Neon, who is an activist campaigning for transgender rights, argues that transsexuality is not a pathological condition, and that gender identity is self-defined by each person.

Guilherme Nascimento Validates and Leonardo Oshiro brought a man’s perspective, and stressed how important it is to include men in the debate around violence against femininity.

Guilherme is founder and editor of the Papo de Homem website and professor of the CEB (Cultivating Emotional Balance) programme. Leonardo is a health educator and personal trainer. As a physical educator, he began to question his own body and how he related to it. He began therapeutic work that made him look deeper into some issues of his masculinity. From meaningful conversations with close friends came the idea of hosting a circle of men, where they can speak freely without fear of judgment, and discuss society’s image and expectations of masculinity.

Thais Fabris, a creative director specialising in representations of femininity in media, shared her knowledge about symbolic violence caused by the objectification of women. Thais shared with us the story of the Feminist Beer (a project that started as a reaction to sexist beer advertisements), that became a popular and desirable product.

New Design Questions and Domains

Each table in the workshop drafted new research questions and potential directions of design projects. The debate with the Dutch Prosecutors’ Office led to questions around the cultural acceptance of prostitution, and the challenges we face in uprooting it. Other questions were raised around the potential of designers to help connect sexual exploitation victims, or else domestic violence victims, to the police and help organisations. According to Martin and Jolanda, there is a need for ‘out of the box’ thinking in order to break the wall of silence.

From communicating crucial information, to designing new advertisements that really make a change in the image of women the convey to the public, it became clear that communication design is an important design domain.

The groups working with Neon, talked about the role of design in creating objects such as toys that are not gender specific. Fashion, of course, plays a huge role, but also visual communication: colour palettes and symbols that go beyond the perception of gender as we know it today. Neon and her group also discussed the design of official documents, such as I.D or passports: how can these be designed in a way that is gender inclusive?

The groups working with Leonardo and Guilherme spoke about the need to create safe environments that allow men to talk, share, and exchange emotions.

We were inspired by the suggestion that urban design and planning can also be a domain that tackles this theme. This was a theme that we hadn’t expected while planning the workshop, but once it came up, it seemed like a promising direction to explore. How can we design cities that are safer for women? How can urban design decrease domestic violence?

Service design is another domain with the potential to address the theme. With a thorough design research process, we can spot where victims of violence may have contact with people in certain services. For example, although a known pattern of domestic violence involves isolating the victim, there are still people a victim may be in contact with: a hairdresser, door-to-door salespeople, or supermarket clerks. Is that a potential domain for designers to think about?

Contextualising Our Questions

After an hour and a half of listening to personal stories, talking, thinking, analysing and creating new design questions, the sessions had to end. It was almost impossible to stop the debate as there was passion in the room to continue talking.

There is a vast difference between Brazil and The Netherlands in the daily reality and cultural behaviours around violence against femininity, and that should be taken in consideration. Although the problem is universal, it must be discussed and designed for in its local context.

For people living in Brazil, this topic is extremely important and relevant. It is a reality that everyone knows and many experience personally, often on a daily basis. It is an ingrained cultural behaviour.

Whereas in the Netherlands, for the average Dutch citizen, violence against women is often hidden; it feels more remote. The context is more criminal. And yet the Dutch experts, Jolanda and Martin, brought the horrifying stories of human trafficking in the context of prostitution. Not only does this mean that we can’t just ignore the problem because it’s not so socially visible, it also raises the question of whether sexist attitudes underpin acceptance of prostitution. If a society thinks prostitution is okay, and condoning prostitution is part of a city or country’s culture, how does that society perceive femininity, and women? Perhaps there are deeper issues here than many people think.

Once we recognise that violence against femininity is a culturally rooted problem our society has with feminine behaviour, emotions, the role of each gender and power relations, we can begin to design for it.

As design researchers, we aspire to create projects which are contextual and derive from the local reality. Naturally, all the topics we discussed are related, but the ways people experience them are very different. This workshop experience caused us to reflect on the possibility to create a global design challenge, to search for the underlying layers, and find a good model to learn from each other around the globe and still maintain a contextual approach to the work we do.

Read more about the breakout session in São Paulo.