“Stop calling it well-meaning: Proposals for women-only carriages are ignorant and retrogressive”

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Harriet Hall
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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. This week, Stylist’s Head of Digital Features, Harriet Hall, explains why the idea of women-only carriages is not the answer to tackling sexual assault on public transport.

The last time women-only compartments existed on trains in the UK was in 1977. At that time, public houses had the right to refuse women service, maternity leave was not granted to all women, men could be paid more for undertaking the same work as women and rape was legal within marriage. It was a time when women were second-class citizens and immeasurably worse off than today. Yet, for some inconceivable reason, we are now discussing whether or not we want to one of these discriminatory policies back. 

Because when Labour MP Chris Williamson suggests that re-introducing female-only carriages in trains is “worth exploring” in order to create a “safe space” where women can avoid rising incidents of sexual assault, he is suggesting exactly that. To do this would be an enormous step backwards for women’s progress. 

Echoing comments made by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, Williamson remarked: “I’m not saying it has to happen, but it may create a safe space. It would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of it.”

Personal choice aside, the MP for Derby North’s remarks have been received with criticism from people calling them problematic, despite being ‘well-intentioned’. But I’m loathe to give these politicians a free pass. We shouldn’t be flattering the suggestions as ‘well-intentioned’, we should be lambasting them for being downright ignorant. They should know better. 

The idea of women-only train carriages isn’t in the interests of women. It’s a retrograde measure that would go directly against everything we’ve fought to achieve. Women have spent centuries trying to break free from lines in the sand we are told not to cross in every aspect of our lives, so to place us within our own separate compartment is the opposite of the equal standing we hope to achieve. It merely brings the metaphorical patriarchal barriers into tangible existence. 

When we suggest physically separating the sexes in order to circumvent assault, we continue to place the onus of responsibility for avoiding attacks upon the women. Female victims of gender-based violence are already subjected to interrogations about their sartorial choices, their method of transport and their level of alcohol consumption. Introduce segregated public transport, and it’s not unlikely that the first line of questioning after an attack would be: “Well, why weren’t you in the woman’s carriage?”

Where women sit is not the issue here. We should not have to adapt our behaviour to travel without being groped. It should not even be a consideration. We might as well call this suggestion what it is: a victims-only carriage.

And why stop with women? With the recent 100% rise in racially motivated attacks, why not separate all LGBTQ people and people of colour into their own carriages on trains, too, just in case any white or homophobic people are tempted to spit out slurs?

The idea that placing female commuters in a woman-only carriage is even something worth considering today, merely serves to legitimise the abhorrent behaviour of anyone who sexually assaults women. Does this suggest that in the mixed carriages it’s a seven minutes in heaven free-for-all?

Bringing in any form of segregation under the guise of ‘protecting’ women simply reinforces sexist attitudes. It sends a message that women need to be protected, to protect themselves, rather than that certain men need to be taught not to touch women without their consent. Take away the temptation and – problem solved! 

We need to stop behaving in a way that implies that sexual assault occurs simply when a woman happens to be walking past a man and he’s unable to control himself like a feral animal. For the majority of men who would never dream of committing a sexual offence, it send the message that they must repent for the actions of the few. It hardly promotes solidarity. As Jess Phillips MP says, “men should be incredibly annoyed by suggestion they can’t control themselves. Sexual violence isn’t about urges, it’s about power.”

Look at the countries where men and women are segregated on public transport: Mexico, India, Japan, Indonesia. Women-only carriages are not an indicator of a liberated, gender-equal regime in which feminism has finally triumphed over sexism; it’s a symptom of societies rife with disrespect for women. Do we really want to align ourselves with that?

Where do we go from here? Do we then eat separately, work separately, walk in separate lanes in the streets? Why not create a women-only nation state and solve the problem altogether?

On a purely practical level, the suggestion is laughable. As if travelling in the UK isn’t already like being herded like cattle into a crammed sweatbox, now all women will be squeezed into what can only be assumed to be one carriage per train, crushed within an inch of their lives to avoid risking being groped, while men manspread to their hearts’ content.  

We must be careful not to resort to knee-jerk reactions to the statistics. A rise in reported incidents of sexual assault on public transport does not necessarily indicate a rise in incidents but a rise in women coming forward. Campaigns from Project Empower to the Everyday Sexism Project have worked tirelessly to keep women safe, from increased implementation of CCTV, to marketing campaigns and specially trained officers. Victims now feel increasingly able to come forward, rather than shrugging the incidents off as ‘just life for women on the Tube’. This is a step in the right direction, not cause for rash suggestions.

The results of a 2014 YouGov poll saw 45% of female Londoners say they’d feel safer on segregated transport. It’s a disheartening statistic but one that points not toward a solution of the physical separation of the sexes, but a hard-line intolerance of any behaviour that makes women feel unsafe.

Encouraging men and women to avoid sharing a space together doesn’t encourage a coming together of genders, an all for one and one for all attitude. It divides and widens the chasm that we’ve worked for so long to close. 

Women should be able to commute without the risk of assault, and without having to physically separate themselves in order to do so. By saying anything otherwise, we are simply pandering to sex offenders instead of considering the wider message – that sexual assault of any kind will not be tolerated.

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