No Country for Young Men

I have translated this post to German here.

I must admit, I took the headline from Ahmed Al-Omran, who used it to refer to his home country Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed utters a complaint that is quite common among young Saudis and other Gulf Arabs: In a move to, as they say, protect women from sexual harassment, many cafés and malls only allow families and single females into their locations. As a result, even though these societies are often very restrictive towards women, these have more opportunities to go out than their male counterparts.

Abdu Khal writes, “If you count the number of youths who have nowhere to go to because malls, parks and beaches are dedicated to families, then you would be appalled. What will the youth do when they find themselves trapped and discarded?”

It is this a problem I encounter day by day. Social restrictions force young people to hang out on the streets. Walking for my favorite café on a weekday’s eve, I will observe youth, probably a little younger than myself, hanging out at dimly-lit bus stops and abandoned playgrounds. They might not even notice because they are so used to it, but I bet they would trade their situation for mine.

Only, they can’t. My favorite café is closed for minors (under 18) after 8 pm, and so are most locations. A recent reportage on the backgrounds of three teenagers that beat up several people in Munich cites one young Swiss: “In the youth center there are only high school students and pussies. The bars we don’t get in. So we hang around here [at the train station] every day.”

A few days ago in an article on Braunschweig’s ban on flashmobs, I cited the city’s conviction that “the public space in Braunschweig serves exclusively traffic, i.e. the transfer from home a to home b, from home a to business b or from business a to business b.”

This is devastating for teenagers that might not find rest at home, nor in commercial cafés. Where are they to go if “public space serves exclusively traffic”? Ahmed gives an answer that is true for Saudi youth as much as for Swiss: “Well, they will do other things that you probably will not like.”

This could be a story about the need of teenagers for a place to hang out at. Indeed, it is. But at the same time, I would like to see this in a broader context. Why are young people forced to hang out on the streets? Essentially, because they don’t own a place of their own. At home, there are their parents, in the café there are owners that are just not their generation.

They don’t own a place because they can’t afford it, and for the same reason they can’t buy access to one (you won’t find the son of a millionaire hanging out on the streets). In this, teenagers share a problem with other groups that are socially marginalized.

The answer to this situation could be the creation of commons. If you have ever been to one of the existing commons after dusk you will know that most of them are far from inviting. Barely lit parks are much more welcoming to those who seek darkness than to good citizens.

But does it have to be like this? In ancient times, the town square was a meeting place for all citizens. A public space, open to the social activities of whoever went there. Today, we have shifted this place to Starbucks, have shifted it from a commons to private property.

Imagine commons, places that are not socially exclusive, but open (and inviting) to everyone. A good market square should be just like that. I have experienced this in Brussels: Hundreds of people sitting on the Grote Markt in the evening, chatting.

Lawrence Lessig describes the internet as a “creative commons”. This square I would call a “social commons”. And just as the internet being a commons enables creative invention, a social commons enables new social networks. It is therefore most of use for those who have not yet established themselves in society. Teenagers are just some of them.

Every time when we talk about integration, we should talk about commons. Their openness allows anybody to participate in them, weaving new networks and building a better, a more equal society. For that a state become a country (also) for young (wo)men.

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