Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ladies specials: female-only trains in India

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

It’s exciting that India, whose women “have poured into the Indian work force over the last decade” only to face “different obstacles in a tradition-bound, patriarchal culture,” has introduced a new set of eight female-only commuter trains to combat the prevalent harassment female passengers often face, according to the New York Times. These trains, called “Ladies Specials,” are in response to what is often called “eve-teasing,” which Ketaki Gokhale describes in the Wall Street Journal as “a benign-sounding term for the cat-calls, groping, and other forms of abuse that women here [in India] endure daily.”

NYT describes how India could, at first glance, “seem to be a country where women have shattered the glass ceiling. The president of the Congress Party, the current president, the foreign secretary, and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, are all women. Women are guaranteed equal rights and equal pay by law, and they are increasingly working in the “booming services sector or in professional jobs.”

But these signs of progress do not reflect the social climate for most women. The NYT article continues: the numbers of rape, kidnapping and abduction, torture, and molestation cases all “jumped sharply” between 2003 and 2007, perhaps sparked by the inevitable social tensions caused by women’s growing presence in the workforce. Gokhale writes that “[e]very woman in Delhi knows the rules: You don’t walk alone after dusk; you avoid eye contact; you tend to wear nondescript clothes, the more billowy the better.”

In other words, 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. Take Mexico City’s plan, for example. Last year, in dealing with a similarly unsafe public transportation system, the city began running women-only buses, but it also went a step further, according to NYT:

“To complement the single-sex buses, the Institute of Women in Mexico City, a government body that promotes opportunities for women, is pushing a public education campaign to make clear to men that inappropriate touching is illegal. In March, a new ordinance will make it easier to prosecute those found harassing women in public places.”

So, let’s celebrate this step in creating a safe environment for Indian women but continue to ask for a more comprehensive solution to the problem of public harassment.

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