All of my childhood, my grandma complained about her back.
She cooks, her back hurts.
She sits, her back hurts.
She walks, her back hurts.
It took me so many years to figure out the source of her pain.
She spent her whole life cooking in a kitchen where the counter was the same height as her chest.
She spent her whole life sitting on sofas that didn’t allow her feet to touch the ground.
She spent her whole life walking on pavements that offered no support.
My grandma was a 150 cm human being.
An 80-year-old Muslim Turkish woman from Southeast Anatolia.
She spent her whole life in environments that oppressed her.
She spent her whole life in environments designed for human beings other than her.
She spent her whole life in environments designed with standardized measurements.
Standardized measurements for white, able-bodied Western men.
Standardized measurements that see living organisms as non-evolving, fixed entities.
But my grandma evolved.
Due to osteoporosis, over the last 15 years she became even smaller.
And she gets smaller each day.
But the environments remain the same.
Oppressing her ever more.
My grandma is not the only one
As a high-schooler who was a little taller than peers my age, I always had issues with desks and chairs. Boys of a similar height would just spread their legs all the way open to sit comfortably, but the compulsory school uniform skirts didn’t allow me to do so. Other tall girls could cross their legs and balance their body weight easily, but my legs were ticker than “average,” and when I put one on top of the other, they hit the bottom of the desk. So, I would turn 90 degrees and cross my legs outside the desk, which then caused me backaches, and forced me to change sides frequently.
“I still do not forget how harshly I was treated because I couldn’t fit into a desk which wasn’t designed for me and that continuously oppressed my body for 35 hours a week for three full years.”
This solution worked for me, but not for the teachers. I would often be warned to put my legs back under the desk and sit “properly.” The scene repeated itself in almost every lesson, making me the center of attention. Once, one teacher got so mad that he screamed: “If I take a photo of you right now and show it to 100 people, 99 of them would say it is not proper, especially as a young girl!” At the time, I couldn’t name what rattled me so much about his words, but I know today that this was a clear display of harassment. More than 10 years have passed, and I still do not forget how harshly I was treated because I couldn’t fit into a desk which wasn’t designed for me and that continuously oppressed my body for 35 hours a week for three full years.
The following year, I started studying architecture. During studio reviews, a professor asked me why my stair steps were 19 cm high, instead of the standard 17 cm. I replied, saying that I had tried climbing before drawing, and figured the best measurement for my body. Now, it was my turn to center my own experience into the design process and claim it as the default.
“In an era when we are capable of storing more data than ever, environments and products are still designed for standardized, ‘universal bodies’ that historically have always been male.”
That day, I was encouraged to read Architects’ Data by Ernst Neufert, the man who in 1936 attempted to standardize and rationalize the entire environment for the Nazi government. Women rarely appear in his book, except in some domestic spaces like kitchens and laundry rooms. It is also not clear whose bodily data make up the few women figures that appear in his standards.
Almost nine decades after Neufert’s Architects’ Data, in an era when we are capable of storing more data than ever, environments and products are still designed for standardized, “universal bodies” that historically have always been male. Such universalist standardization operates through erasure and exclusion of whoever is deemed “different”—even if that “difference” is the majority of the world population.
A broken phone, a banned cap, and a biased emoji
I started using smartphones in 2017, and since then I have problems with the sub-sector of objects they’ve created: phone accessories. Today, buying a phone means also buying a screen protector, a phone case, and also an additional grip, which became necessary after I dropped and broke my one-week-old phone while texting on the bus. The next day, I got one of those rings to stick to the back of the phone case and help me hold it in my hands. After a while, I noticed that most men were not using those rings, but most women were. It was an additional layer to the “pink tax”—the gender-based pricing premium that is often baked into women’s products. We buy these accessories not because we love rings, but because phones were designed—likely, by men—for big hands. In a controversial real-life example of this phenomenon, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explained how she could not document the tear gas misuse during Gezi Park protests in 2013 because her phone was not designed to be used one-handed by her, but by average men. But design-led oppression is not only a matter of anthropometry or ergonomics. A few years ago, I was sitting in a room with a colleague discussing a project. I told him that I had a hard time imagining Muslim women comfortably using our architectural design. “They would struggle,” I said. “How many Muslim women are there, anyway?” he replied.” There I was, a Muslim women, sitting right in front of him, being asked: “How many Muslim women are there, anyway?”
One year before that conversation, I saw for the first time a hijab with ear-holes. At first I thought it was for earbuds, but it was for something much more important: stethoscopes. The innovative design made it easier for hijabi medical workers to perform their jobs. The product was innovated, designed, and was being sold by a hijabi MD. It sparked a light in my head. I had never thought of this before, although I was raised in a Muslim-majority country. If it wasn’t her, who else would notice and address such a design gap? Even if it was invented by a hijabi MD, wouldn’t the market say, as my colleague did, “How many hijabi medical workers are there anyway?”
Sometimes, even when the market sees the need and potential in a product for marginalized groups, those groups don’t always get to use it. During last year’s Olympics, the International Swimming Federation banned the use of swimming caps designed for the thick, curly, voluminous natural hair. Their claim was that “the athletes competing at the international events have never used, neither require […] caps of such size and configuration,” and that the caps did not fit in “the natural form of the head”—assuming, of course, that all the swimmers have default white features. Essentially, they might as well have said: “How many Black Olympic swimmers are there anyway?”
The story made me think of when, after long discussions on how racist and discriminatory emojis were, Unicode finally decided to acknowledge people of color, by changing the skin color of already existing emojis, and not making any further adjustments, including hair! Only in 2020 were Black emojis with natural Afro hairstyles introduced, thanks to the efforts of two Black women designers, just like how the hijabi MD filled the design gap herself.
I was in London when COVID-19 first hit Europe in February 2020, and my TikTok feed immediately got flooded with videos of Asian women showing how to make medical masks more protective and fitting to their skulls. Within a month, the pandemic hit Turkey, and I was back home. Suddenly, my Instagram feed was loaded with videos of hijabi women showing how to sew an apparatus to wear masks over their hijab. Medical masks were clearly not designed for Asian nor hijabi women. Those biases were creating health risks, and women had to fix the design themselves.
But sometimes design bias goes beyond merely risking one’s life, and can actually cause death. In car crashes, for example, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die than men. For decades, the dummies used in crash tests were based on the average male body. Recently, car regulators have realized that females also exist and drive. So, for the sake of inclusion, they came up with the brilliant idea of using scaled-down male dummies as female dummies, as if it were merely a matter of scale that made the difference.
“Most of recorded human history is one big data gap,” writes Caroline Criado Perez in her 2019 bestseller Invisible Women. The world we live in is fundamentally structured and permeated by design biases, which are now getting radically amplified by algorithmic processes such as machine learning. Most of us need to keep fighting multiple interlocking systems of oppression to fit into a world that was not designed for us. But how do we do that?
Hacking the system
In 2021, I co-organized Feminist Futures Hackathon with product designer Andra Bria. We wanted to critique the male-dominated innovation spaces and ignite communal action against the oppressive practices of tech powerholders through design and intersectional feminism. The night before the event, I was searching Google to find a paper I’d read on feminist hackathons. Unexpectedly, I came across our very own hackathon being described as “an event for powerful women” by one of the very male-dominated innovation spaces we were trying to criticize. They removed it upon our request, but the incongruous experience still lingered with me.
Who are deemed “powerful women”? When Kimberlee Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” she aimed to examine “where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” Similarly, Patricia Hill Collins theorized the “matrix of domination” to acknowledge the ways systems of power are being constructed and experienced through a non-static multi-axis identity domination and their complex interconnections. Following intersectional feminist theory, power is all about where one is located in the matrix of domination of the structural privilege and oppression. The axes of race, class, gender, or any other identity might differ from place to place, community to community, context to context and also throughout time.
“[My grandmother] is a problem-solver. A maker. A designer. Although, of course, she wouldn’t call herself any of those.”
So who were those “powerful women” that all the corporate bodies, tech and innovation spaces love talking about? This question made me think of my grandma again, the 80-year old Muslim Turkish women from southeast Anatolia in Turkey. She never attended school, and taught herself to read and write. She would try to read small sections of newspapers from time to time, but her eyesight often gave her unbearable headaches after a few lines. She spent her whole life at home, undertaking the never-ever-paid domestic work. She never worked for money or earned her own money, and all she owns came from either her parents or my grandpa.
Still, she is the best tailor I know. Whenever a professional tailor cannot figure out my design, or a ready-made cloth that I bought does not fit me, I bring it to her. She is hardly able to properly sew now, but she always has a solution to make things work. She knows how to use the sewing machine better than any other thing, almost like it is part of her arm. She knows how to solve problems with that machine, and she does. She is a problem-solver. A maker. A designer. Although, of course, she wouldn’t call herself any of those.
While trying to reach a spice jar on the counter, she sometimes says: “I wish the counter was lower.” She was not allowed to interfere with the carpenter who designed and built it. Architects’ Data is not part of her vocabulary; she has no idea who Neufert is. She notices that the new phones are too big, but she has no option but to buy the smallest design available: the older non-smart phones.
“We all keep innovating and hacking through all our lives to be able to fit in the designed environment or make it fit us. Some of us need to innovate more, some of us less.”
Like the hijabi MD, or the Asian women who needed to “fix” face masks, we all keep innovating and hacking through all our lives to be able to fit in the designed environment or make it fit us. Some of us need to innovate more, some of us less. But some of us are given the opportunity to innovate, while many of us aren’t. Depending on where we are on the matrix of domination, on how well we fit in the white-universalist-able-bodied-male standard, or on how promising we are in the scale-economy of mass profit, we get to be problem-solvers, makers, designers.
My grandma is a problem-solver. She sometimes designs and sometimes hacks. But she can only do certain things, and smartphones are clearly not one of those. But if she was allowed to, how would she hack the products that turned her life into a lifelong struggle? How would she design for her continuously changing body? What data would she use? What knowledge? What tools?
A cyborg and a hacker enter a Volkswagen
“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” says Donna Haraway in her oft-cited 1985 Cyborg Manifesto. Her cyborg is a mythical hybrid being that exists beyond-genders, beyond-races, beyond-classes, who is free from androcentric, capitalistic and humanist domination. Haraway sees the cyborg as an escape from traditional identity politics. It sounds very convincing. When I first read it, I remember thinking: “Aren’t we all cyborgs today?” But no, we aren’t.
As pointed out by social justice researcher Julia DeCook in a 2020 paper, the cyborg was a clear reflection of Haraway’s white, Western environment and techno-utopian perspective. Haraway saw technology as a tool for emancipation rather than oppression, and used it to “fix” the long-rooted history of oppression. However, the dilemma is there; tech itself is white, Western, and male. It comes from the Ivy league and lives in Silicon Valley. It is everything that forms the matrix of domination, and keeps reifying the oppression it causes.
“Technology and the desire to create and control machines is a realm dominated by Man, and thus technology itself may inherently be patriarchal.”—Maari Sugawara
As Audre Lorde rightfully said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, by adopting the oppressors’ tech that is built to serve the oppressors’ desires and profits, the oppressed won’t dismantle the oppressors’ house. According to artist Maari Sugawara, “Technology and the desire to create and control machines is a realm dominated by Man, and thus technology itself may inherently be patriarchal.” As a Middle Eastern woman, I can’t say I am the most privileged, but I am privileged compared to many others. However, my relationship with and ease of access to tech is still not enough to make me a cyborg in a world where the tech is not created with my data and needs. But can I create my own tech?
I actually love playing around with technology and scrap-making things. While I was living in Ankara, Turkey, I loved strolling through the hardware stores in the narrow downtown streets. Yet, I would wear my biggest, thickest, and worst-looking clothes to go there. Not because walking was a dirty task, but because I wanted to be taken seriously by the mostly male sellers, while being careful not to draw too much attention to myself and get cat-called, or seem too weak so as to get my wallet stolen. And in order to do that, you need to look as “less womanly” as possible.
“Hacking for me is finding a disadvantageous gap in a product, setting, event, or regulation and turning that into an advantage. Hacking is a form of resistance.”
When I talk about hacking, I do not necessarily mean computers. Hacking for me is finding a disadvantageous gap in a product, setting, event, or regulation and turning that into an advantage. Hacking is a form of resistance. When I talk of hacking, the first image that comes to my mind is women photoshopping men’s nipples to their nipples to not be censored by the Instagram algorithm. When I talk of hacking, I’m talking of a counterattack to the oppressive power systems. If you asked me in high school, I would say that I was a hacker. Having a piece of purple postiche was my form of hacking—when I noticed that the students’ dress code rules were only banning dyeing your own hair, but did not mention anything about dyeing someone else’s hair and wearing that piece yourself. I was counterattacking the misogyny by hacking dress code oppression.
My grandma is a hacker too. She is a designer, a problem-solver, reclaiming the man-made world. She got her 4th COVID vaccine last month. I booked her appointment online, because she couldn’t. We drove her to the hospital, because she couldn’t. While leaving the hospital, she fell down; tripping over a pavement level difference, while I wasn’t paying attention to her steps and was trying to see where we could cross the road without getting her to walk too much.
For days, I couldn’t stop myself swearing to whoever built that pavement that way. I sent complaint mails around and called places. But my grandmother didn’t say or complain much. She then decided to start using a baston. She decided to solve the problem herself, and reclaim the man-made pavement. My grandma is a 80-year old Muslim Turkish women from southeast Anatolia. And she is not a cyborg.
Sinem Görücü (she/her) is a creative, design researcher, architect and data activist; working at the intersections of design, urbanism, data science, artificial intelligence, feminism and social justice. She holds an MArch degree from the UCL-Bartlett School of Architecture, an MCP degree from METU and a BArch from Gazi University. She also previously studied at Politecnico di Milano taking courses on digital cities, and at KU Leuven Design[x]Research Lab as a research intern. Sinem’s current design, art and research works mainly focus on data and design justice and explore a wide range of related issues.