Ladies Specials


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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.

Photo Courtesy of the New York Times, first featured on the Commgap blog


Darshana Patel

Consultant, The World Bank

Join the Conversation

October 23, 2009

This post raises good arguments for both side of the debate, and I am initially inclined to favor the separate transportation. However, I believe that while every person (male, female, and let's not forget transgender) has the right to personal safety-- especially in the pursuit of bettering their position in this world-- the question must always go back to "is it sustainable?". This gender based practice addresses the immediate needs of the communities in question. They also address the need to incorporate females into the workforce. However, practices that encourage different standards for interaction in society based on gender only widen the gap of inequality and reinforce the norm.

I think this debate gets to the heart of a larger question in development: Do we meet immediate needs or set in motion practices that reduce inequalities and improve human welfare in the long run.

Christine Zarzicki
October 25, 2009

I believe that in order for women to ultimately contribute as a significant part of the public/economic sector in these countries, they should strive not to perpetuate a modified sheltered existence and simply live in a state of heightened security. These safety precautions are simply not "reality" and thus create a faux scenario in which women are adapting. The entire notion of women entering the work force and achieving proper gender equality implies that any sort of “advantage" given to them will destroy their credibility. Men will eventually grow resentful of the provisions made for women and this will intensify the animosity and harassment. I truly believe that in any situation where the oppressed are given special rights or privileges, the oppressor eventually becomes indignant with the situation and will even claim that any success achieved by the oppressed was simply the result of pampering and crutches.

However, because the gender discrimination situation in such countries is truly dire, it seems that SOME variation of safety measures MUST be used in order to instigate change and give women the confidence to pursue their aspirations. Because women are essentially paralyzed by this constant harassment (whether from fear or their families) it appears to be crucial that something be done. Separate trains will give these women and their families the feeling of security they need to take the first step toward success and equality. It is imperative, however, that once progress is made and equality seems more probable that such support systems be removed so that we are not constantly reminded of the gender discrepancies.