The Washington Post ran an article this week about the latest “unlikely heroines of India’s female workforce”: the women guards who enforce the rules of women-only subway cars in New Delhi’s new metro. What the reporter found was not just the women’s relief at having a safe space, but the simple delight many feel at being able to legally enforce boundaries in a society where women’s boundaries are rarely respected.
“Oh, it’s fun to see the men get scolded. It’s the best part of my day,” said Sangetta Pareek, 35, with a laugh, while traveling to her job at a cosmetics firm. “They crib and cry about it. It’s funny.”
Mennu Malik, 42, a fashion designer, rode the train with her 12-year-old son, Arjun. (Male children are allowed to travel with their mothers.) She said she frequently takes him on the women’s car and points out the enforcers.
“Men are always trying to be physical with you, pushing and shoving you a lot,” Malik said. “But the enforcers mean we have equal dignity. What has made them heroes is that most of our laws are on the books but are never enforced. The women’s-only car is actually one thing that is implemented.”
Constant harassment of women on subways has led to the creation of women-only metro cars in other countries as well, including Egypt, Japan, and South Korea. As I mentioned in my post on the TSA pat-down furor, if you are a woman who regularly takes public transportation, uninvited groping is inevitable, and we can’t always fight back as effectively as recent feminist heroine Ms. Nicola “Oh Fucking Yes” Briggs, who bravely turned the tables on a New York subway dick-flasher.
That said, I dislike the idea that best response to sexual harassment is complete gender segregation. The message becomes “To avoid harassment, go here“, which is not the same as “Harassment is unacceptable everywhere.” Telling women to remove themselves from common areas so they won’t be molested contributes to the belief that any women who then chooses to be in those common areas—like a mixed-gender subway car—must be “asking for it”. We already see this played out in some parts of the world where a woman merely walking down the street by herself is assumed to be welcoming male attention and therefore fair game for abuse. The fault is still being placed on the victim, not the attacker. So while women’s only cars might help alleviate the problem of harassment in a stop-gap, practical sense, in the long term, they doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is that men must learn to keep their fucking hands to themselves because harassment is wrong, not because there are simply no available women to harass. Society needs to promote that message by punishing harassers, not simply by offering women a single-sex space.
That said, I wouldn’t judge any woman who chooses to take the women’s subway car, and I would likely do the same if I were in a city where not doing so would make it more likely that I’d be harassed. As the Post article said: Although many women hold high-ranking political positions, Indian women still struggle for dignity in daily life. The burden of maintaining that dignity, and fighting harassment, abuse, and discrimination on a daily basis is hard to overstate, so I’m glad that Indian women can easily remove one constant source of harassment/abuse from their lives, even if it’s based on imperfect social policy. And yes, I would probably be loving those female guards who enforced my safe space, too.