Hamburg recently announced that it would name one of its streets after a famous German activist who was once a prostitute. Domenica Anita Niehoff, who passed away in February 2009 due to a lung disease, was a fierce advocate for the rights of sex workers. A former prostitute, she became an activist who pushed for legalising her profession, and made efforts in appearing on television shows in order to re-sculpt social attitudes towards sex and prostitution. She also worked towards helping prostitutes cope with their drug addiction. Over the course of her activism, Niehoff gradually began starring in feature films like Desperado City (1981) and Messalina – Kaiserin und Hure (1977) and became an increasingly known figure in mainstream conversations.
This was not the first time Niehoff had been recognised for her contributions to society. Upon her passing, she was laid to rest in the Garden of Women at the Ohlsdorf Cemetery, as the first prostitute to be buried among honoured women (many of whom died opposing the Nazi regime).
To be appreciated and acknowledged for working towards transforming how sex workers are socially perceived, speaks volumes and is a nod of encouragement for feminists and women activists across the globe. It reflects Neihoff’s grit – her unswerving ability to ensure that neither her gender nor her professional background hindered her ability to voice her views.
It’s also an important indicator of the open-mindedness of German society – its respect for women, and more importantly, its respect for activists who belong to professions that are conventionally frowned upon. This is in contrast to a move made in China, where last year Beijing proposed to ban streets which had “vulgar”, risque names, including streets that were named after prostitutes.
Along with Niehoff, Germany will also honour two other women by naming streets after them – one is a 17th century Jewish businesswoman, Glueckel von Hameln who chronicled what it was like living in a Jewish German ghetto; it provides an insight into the community in that century. The other is Helga Feddersen, a famous German actress/comedian. While naming streets after women is progressive, across the globe there are more streets named after men than women.
The lopsided difference in the number of streets named after men and women is a marker of the gender equation. Last year, Bengaluru-based Mapbox conducted a global survey to assess the number of streets which are named after men and women in cities like Bengaluru, London, Delhi, Paris, San Francisco and Mumbai. Universally and unsurprisingly, more streets are named after men. Bengaluru emerged a winner reflecting 39 per cent of streets named after women in comparison to Delhi and Mumbai. Taking all the aforementioned six cities into account, the average percentage of streets named after women halted at 27.5.
Interestingly, in the Kreuzberg district in Berlin, an order has been passed to stabilise the gender imbalance in public places in German society, by ensuring that streets and other public institutions will be named after women until an equality is reached. That sets a great example for other countries to follow suit.