The “Ladies Specials” are women-only commuter train recently launched in four Indian cities (New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta). While not a new practice, public transport exclusively for women is becoming popular. (Mexico City introduced women-only buses in January 2008 and commuters on Japanese trains know a thing or two about this too.)
Harassment on the train or bus is not just an annoying nuisance for women. It influences whether or not a woman chooses to enter the workforce in the first place. (Or maybe whether her family or husband will allow her.)
Changes in economic landscape of a country have led to shifting roles for women, who are increasingly moving outside of the household and into the workplace. These new women workers, often of a younger generation, are now re-shaping what it means to be women in their societies.
These new roles are not without their challenges and setbacks and are quite often marked by violence. (Examples of garment workers in Bangladesh, maquila workers in Mexico and call-center operators in India instantly come to mind.) These means of transportation provide women with much needed respite from daily sexual harassment.
But some may argue that these measures may just be a bandage for a gaping wound. One of the most insightful presentations I have ever attended was by Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist working on the Gender and Space Project run by an organization called PUKAR. In her paper, Dangerous Liaisons: Women and Men; Risk and Reputation in Mumbai, she describes how urban public places shape the way women manage risks.
She argues that, while it is always important to ensure safe public spaces for women, the overarching goal is to ensure that women have a right to actively be part of these public spaces, not protected from them.
"If one were to turn the safety argument on its head, one might argue that what women need in order to maximize our access to public space as citizens – is not the provision of safety, for even so-called safe environments are not necessarily comfortable for women, but the right to engage risk….If we were to argue that the worst thing to befall women in relation to public space is to be denied access to it we would place ourselves and the debate in an entirely different discourse – the discourse of rights not protectionism."
Shifting this discourse from protectionism to rights allows women to not only proactively shape what is appropriate behavior for women but also to shape the public sphere itself. Protective measures, such as women-only trains, are crucial when women are initially forging these new roles but these measures must be coupled with rights for women that allow them equal protection as citizens. Phadke states:
What we might seek then is an equality of risk – that is not that women should never be attacked but that when they are, they should receive a citizen’s right to redress and their right to be in that space be unquestioned.
Because the public sphere itself is full of hierarchies and rifts, this question of how women manage risk is important and requires further investigation. How do women calculate, negotiate and overcome risks in the public sphere: in economic activity (in the workplace), social activity (in their daily commute) but also in political activity (voice and representation)?
Check out the New York Time's slideshow of women only trains in India.