Women-only transport to tackle harassment – 19 Jan 2023

How effective, if at all, is gender segregation in curbing harassment on public transport?

In a country like Pakistan, public transport is a crucial part of daily life for a majority. However, the escalating scourge of verbal and physical harassment on public trains and buses – ranging from lecherous leers to lewd comments to unwanted physical contact – has left female commuters feeling vulnerable and unsafe in commuting via public transport. To address public transport harassment, the government has launched women-only buses and now plans to introduce women-only train compartments in the near future. This prompts the question: How effective, if at all, is gender segregation in curbing harassment on public transport?

To point out the obvious, a space exclusively for women is a long-awaited much-needed relief for them and would allow them to travel without the constant fear of being targeted or harassed by men. According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, a staggering 70% of Pakistani women who use public transport report being subjected to unwanted advances and inappropriate behaviour from male passengers.

And while women-only public transport is being labelled as a step in the right direction, it is worth bearing in mind that it is not a durable solution and does not address the root cause of harassment in public spaces. To put things in context as to why sex segregation is not a panacea, it is important to take a look at places around the world where this has been in place for years. When Rio de Janeiro introduced women-only train carriages on their commuter and metro lines in 2006, the national newspaper O Globo reported on the very first day of implementation that men were disregarding the designated women-only carriages and entering them anyway. In 1992, South Korea also implemented the use of women-only subway cars, but eventually discontinued them due to similar reasons as Rio de Janeiro. In Britain too, when Labour MP Chris Williamson postulated that women-only train carriages can stamp out harassment, the idea was met with great objection from female MPs and journalists.

A major flaw in this policy is that not only is it shrugging the shoulders from the responsibility of creating a culture of consent and respect for all genders but the notion that women and other marginalised genders must be separated in order to be safe is also a stark admission of the inability to solve the root cause of the problem.

It is widely acknowledged by gender scholars that the consequences of segregation are a complete opposite of what gender-equity policies intend to achieve.

American author and social activist bell hooks, in her book, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, argues that gender segregation can contribute to the perpetuation of power imbalances between men and women.

Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, also writes in her book, Gender Trouble, that segregation leads to reinforcement of traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

Imtiaz Ali, researcher and lecturer of Conflict Resolution and Crisis Management, echoed similar views during a recent seminar held by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Karachi.

“As seen in countries like Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan, segregation is not an effective solution to address the difficulties faced by women in Pakistan,” Mr Ahmad said, adding, “instead, political, social, and economic empowerment represents the most effective approach.”

The laws to punish predators are already in place. Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code explicitly mentions that any word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman shall be punished with imprisonment or with fine, or with both. However, the scourge of verbal and physical harassment clearly shows that the necessary action for implementation is lacking.

Numerous NGOs in Pakistan are tirelessly working to protect and promote the rights and welfare of women in what is a patriarchal society. From awareness campaigns that educate the public about recognising and responding to harassment to increased security and reporting systems such as hotlines or online reporting forms, the government must follow suit and step up to take real action instead of stopgap measures that do little to address the root causes of harassment.

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