Here we go again. Another suggestion, this time by the SNP transport minister, Jenny Gilruth, to introduce women-only carriages on public transport in order to address the ‘systemic problem’ of women feeling too scared to travel ‘because of men’s behaviour’. Does that mean it's okay for men to sexually assault women in mixed carriages?
Rather than addressing the fact that rape is obscenely under prosecuted in this country (with around 1 per cent of reported rapes ending in a conviction in England and Wales) the minister is following in the footsteps of the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in coming up with a bonkers idea to keep women safe. How about deterring men from sexually harassing and assaulting women instead? Isn't that a novel idea? If men thought that there might be consequences for their actions, guess what? They might think twice before putting their hands on a female commuter.
Segregated areas on public transport are in use in several countries around the world, such as Iran, Japan, India, the UAE, Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico. All of these countries have major problems with the abuse and oppression of women. All are countries where women face institutional discrimination, severe sexual harassment, or both.
And guess what happens in countries where there is endemic misogyny and high rates of sexual assault coupled with barely any convictions for such crimes? Men ignore the rules. A sexual predator is hardly going to worry about being told off by a train guard if he steps into a women-only carriage.
In the 1990s, a group of vigilantes called Guardian Angels – which began by organising civilian patrols of the New York City streets and subways in 1979 in response to the rampant crime of the era – turned up on the London underground. Wearing jackets and red berets, these muscled, tattooed men figured their very presence would deter crime. We feminists found it hilarious. It reminded us of the advice police officers give to women when a serial rapist or killer is on the loose: ‘Make sure you stay indoors or get a man to walk you home’. Why should women be chaperoned?
Sex segregation is about as effective in preventing crimes against women and girls as the full-face veil. In other words, not at all. Both give the impression that men can't help themselves, and that women somehow need to be shut away so that men don't catch a glimpse of female flesh and suddenly find themselves out of control.
Segregation on public transport is a step backwards. It further embeds the idea that male violence towards women and girls is natural and inevitable. It effectively sends a message that we have given up on deterring men from committing such crimes, and also that women are pathetic victims somehow in need of protection – as opposed to justice and equality. Why should women’s freedom be curtailed? Why should I sit separately from men, some of whom I may even wish to speak to? What if I'm out with male friends and colleagues, do I wave goodbye on the platform?
I have both experienced and witnessed sexual harassment and assault on the London underground. When reporting these incidents, I was told by the transport police they are inundated with such complaints. One even suggested that preventing such crimes is ‘almost impossible’. This isn't good enough. Women should not have to take action to prevent sexual assault, men should be stopped from doing so. This normalisation of sexual harassment is an obscenity. As long as we put the emphasis on women's behaviour rather than the attitudes that underpin such crimes, nothing will change.
Apart from anything else, it would be impossible to enforce women-only carriages, as they would likely be against the law. I am sure some bloke feeling badly done to would take a legal challenge on the basis of ‘sex discrimination’ on behalf of men. In fact, ‘ladies only’ compartments, that had been in place since the Victorian era, were abolished on trains in Britain in 1977, shortly after the UK parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Act.
It would make more sense to introduce men-only carriages than to segregate women. That way, men who feel they can’t control themselves will be prevented from acting on their base instincts. Obviously, this too is an outrageous and unworkable suggestion, but is it really any more unreasonable than restricting women’s freedom and choices?