Many people have experienced harassment and abuse on public transport. As a woman, I have experienced several incidents ranging from sexual harassment to verbal abuse, and I am certainly not alone. The British Transport Police have presented figures regarding incidents on trains: 1,448 sexual offences on trains were reported in 2016-17, which is a huge a huge increase from 650 sexual offences reported in 2012-2013. Does this mean that we aren’t doing enough to tackle these types of crimes, or, more to the point, are we doing enough to prevent them?
Back in 2015, our lord and saviour Jeremy Corbyn reacted to these concerns regarding women’s safety on public transport and one possible solution that he raised was the concept of women-only train carriages. He was certainly not the first person to have this idea, nor was he the first person to ever propose it. For instance, Claire Perry, Conservative politician, and rail minister at the time, commented on this idea the year before Corbyn did. And, it’s not an entirely fanciful suggestion. There are many countries where women-only carriages are the norm: Iran, Japan, India, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Dubai, and more. However, data suggests that these carriages have not always and do not always reduce the number of attacks (reported).
Many reacted negatively to Corbyn’s proposal, claiming that this is patronising, or even sexist. I agree with these claims but in application to the concept of women-only carriages. Not necessarily in application to Corbyn himself. He actually said:
“It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket… This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews or avoiding certain means of transport… Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women only carriages… My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”
So, not as outrageous and controversial as many would have you believe. He points out that women should not have to drastically edit their behaviour and lifestyles in order to avoid being attacked. He highlights that he would like to make transport safer for everyone and not just women. Finally, he recognises that the voices of women are more important than his own here which is why he declares here that this would be something he put to women to discuss. As such, I think much of the outrage is wrongly directed at Mr Corbyn. Nonetheless, women-only carriages are a horrible idea.
Even in the case where women-only carriages were introduced, how would they be policed? People are able to move freely through trains. The only areas of trains that are physically off-limits are the conductor areas. So, men would be able to access the women’s only carriages. This only describes one reason why women-only carriages in other countries haven’t reduced the number of attacks. The only way to stop this movement of men into the women-only carriage would be to have security on board, or to expect the train conductors to enforce this rule. Firstly, on-board security would solve the problem of harassment and abuse on trains from the outset, so this only renders the women-only carriage more unnecessary. This is also possibly not financially viable. Otherwise, it is down to the staff already employed and on-board, which is perhaps a big add-on to their current job description and pay packet. Furthermore, does the female-only rule then extend to staff members? It just seems overly complicated in practice.
It’s also problematic with regards to who gets to decide who is a woman or not, because gender is not always black and white and it is ideally not the business of the general public. Much like separate toilets for different genders, women-only carriages would perhaps pose a new set of problems for trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. Would a women-only carriage increase attacks on trans people? Furthermore, LGBTQ+ people are likely targets of harassment and abuse on public transport anyway. Obviously women overlap with this category, but male LGBTQ+ do not overlap with the category of women. Where is the carriage for male LGBTQ+ victims of harassment and abuse? It only becomes increasingly clear that public transport should be made safe for everyone and throughout. Everybody has the right to be safe and free from harassment/abuse when using public transport. A woman-only carriage underestimates the scale of the problem, and the scope of the victims.
There are also victim-blaming implications. Where these carriages were available, would women be blamed when harassed or abused whilst present in the standard carriages? “Well, maybe you should have used the women-only carriage” kinda victim-blaming. Not only this, but, it also reinforces the idea that avoiding harassment is the responsibility of the victim. The responsibility to not harass and abuse people is further pushed into the background. I also don’t take kindly to the idea of being put on a pedestal uniquely as women. I find it almost infantalising, actually, to suggest that women need to be put into a safe, separate section whilst in public areas. I don’t like the segregation. I know that it would be a case of choice and not obligation, but, it feels extremely outdated to imply that women need safe spaces because men just cannot help themselves, it implies that attacks are inevitable. It is insulting to all parties and feels like a very short-term solution.
Other, more minor thoughts that I have had regarding this issue include the concept of first-class carriages, and the concept of women-only hours/sections at the gym. Does the idea of women-only carriages overlap in any way with the concept of first class carriages? First class can be interpreted as a symptom of the class system and, obviously, the more money you have, the more likely you are to ride in first class. Does a first class train carriage exclude poor people in a socially unjust way? And in this sense, does the concept of first-class need to be put under examination? As for women-only hours/sections at the gym, does this entail a similar list of problematic assumptions?
Jeremy Corbyn has recently confirmed his complete opposition to the concept of women-only carriages, which says to me, he has listened to women. Other suggestions for improving safety on trains have been 24 hour hotlines, which is probably the most practical response. The concept of a women-only carriage may come from a place of concern or compassion, but it is extremely short-sighted. The ideal solution, for me, would be more security staff on-board. This is yet to become a viable possibility. At least, for now, if you experience harassment, abuse, or anti-social behaviour on public transport then you can text 61016 to discretely report incidents occurring on public transport or at stations/stops. Of course, call 999 in an emergency. For further information and support visit the British Transport Police website: http://www.btp.police.uk/