In September, Feministe guest poster Thúy-Lan Võ Lite of Equal Writes wrote about India’s Ladies Specials, ‘a new set of eight female-only commuter trains to combat the prevalent harassment female passengers often face’ just commuting to and from work on a daily basis. This is in a climate of increasing numbers of rape, kidnapping and abduction, torture and molestation cases over the past few years.
But harassment on public transport is far from being a problem just in India. Transportation catering only to women is popping up around the world more and more, from Bangkok to Moscow. For instance, in the Mexican city of Puebla, there’s a new service comprised of thirty-five taxis which not only service just women but are driven exclusively by women. From the American AP:
Each pink taxi comes with a beauty kit, a GPS system and an alarm button.
“Some of the woman who have been on board tell us how male taxi drivers cross the line and try to flirt with them and make inappropriate propositions,” said taxi driver Aida Santos, who drives one of the compact, four-door taxis with a tracking device and an alarm button that notifies emergency services. “In the Pink Taxi they won’t have that feeling of insecurity, and they feel more relaxed.”
As women increasingly move about outside of the private sphere, it’s this sort of tactic that aims to quell some of the inevitable pushback from those men who aren’t too keen on the idea and those who want to exercise their ability to grope and cat-call and otherwise harass their fellow commuters. And as the American AP says, it’s not just passengers benefiting from these services. With a focus on employing women drivers, the Puebla program will ‘undeniably open up to Mexican women what has been an overwhelmingly male profession.’
So, women only transport sounds like a good idea all up, right? I don’t think it’s the ideal solution.
Firstly, we must ask, which women do these measures aim to protect? A little alarm bell goes off in my head at the mention of ‘women only’. The phrase has a long and nasty history of transmisogyny, as perpetuated by the feminist movement. Of course, in the case of the women’s transport options presently under discussion, this is speculation: I don’t know how trans inclusive any of these services are. But all too often it is not made explicit as to whether ‘women only’ services or spaces or what have you are for all people who identify as women, or only certain kinds of women. This regularly has the effect of trans women being left out in any case, because asking for clarification in itself carries the risk of hostile reactions, and the substantial risk of being disappointed, even where the service/space might otherwise be open to trans women. It’s a poisonous loop.
Secondly, women only (whatever that means) transport is a stop gap. These transportation services don’t get to the bottom of the problem: the feelings of entitlement that harassing men have. As Thúy-Lan Võ Lite says of the Ladies Specials, ‘It’s great that these trains are giving women a safe space. But it’s also important to note that the Ladies Specials are only a temporary solution; for real social change to occur, something must be done to stop the catcalling men.’ As long as women’s bodies aren’t considered our own, and until whether they may be touched by others or not is entirely at our discretion, measures focussing just on women are insufficient. In the meantime, to get back to the question of ‘which women,’ these forms of transport protect only some women and only in the particular context of commuting. As I mentioned above, these are most likely cis women; in terms of private modes of transport, only the few who can afford them; and I don’t know how accessible any of these services are for disabled women, but I don’t have high hopes. The women without the means of accessing this transport are left to make do with the unpleasant systems they have (assuming they can). And the wider social problem of men feeling entitled to women’s bodies, on transport, accessing basic services, in social situations, wherever, remains unchecked.
Thirdly, and this is a minor point compared to the kind of thing we’re talking about here, but the pinkification of the Puebla taxis is a bit nauseating. ‘Here, go pink! And have some make up while you’re at it. That’s what girls like, right?’ (See tigtog on the phenomenon of pinkification.) And let’s not even touch the inclusion of a beauty kit. I’ll let Vianeth Rojas, of the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Puebla, say it: ‘We are in the 21st century, and they are saying women have continued worrying about beauty and nothing more […] They are absolutely not helping eradicate violence against women.’ Throwing pink at a problem doesn’t solve it. It just sets women up as a cute little subgroup.
But all that doesn’t negate the increased safety for commuting women (if, as is most likely, only some women) and all those who have come to expect inappropriate behaviour from taxi drivers and fellow commuters are aware of how vital that is. The women using these new services doubtless find them very useful indeed.
These new systems only address the problems of harassment in part, both in terms of not getting to the bottom of the problems around men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, and also in only catering to certain – the most privileged! – women. Nevertheless, they’re an interesting idea, and their increasing prevalence will, one might hope, increase awareness of the need to solve the problems commuting women face.
[Slightly edited version of a post at Feministe.]
Note: i’ve scheduled this post in advance and may not be around to moderate comments. Thanks for your patience.