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Ladies Specials: Gender and the Public Space

Darshana Patel's picture

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 a 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 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 is 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)?

Photo Credit: Flickr user aRfi!


Submitted by Anonymous on
While I agree that if and when women are attacked they should receive a citizens rights to redress etc, I just never want to have to be attacked to find out how the system works or does not for women. My dilemma as a mother of two daughters and grandmother of 3 girls is around these issues of rights, risks and protective measures. On the one hand I am a serious advocate for their and my right to participate fully in public life and to be in public spaces but the question remains, how do we manage the risk? I take Cabs for Women now when travelling to the airport in Johannesburg, driven and managed by women and just relax even if the flight is at 2am. Is that the answer? If this means that we are subscribing to protectionism or if these protective measures are interim measures what is the final outcome that we are working towards? And how do we achieve it? My personal experience of being sexually harassed on a bus in India left me feeling degraded, violated and shamed for months and I never took the bus again on my own. Any rights that I might have had for recourse were meaningless in that situation and all I want is never to have that experience again.

Submitted by John Gray on
I will just say that new department should be made for women.In every sector and in every field.

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