We shouldn’t derail the idea of women-only carriages

30 Aug 2015

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I would have liked the option of a woman-only carriage when, last summer, I had the experience of sitting next to a man on the tube who was masturbating. I would have liked the option of a woman-only carriage when, on occasion, I sat on the last train home, holding my keys between my fingers in case the man staring intently at me approached me aggressively.

 

Currently, the alternative options facing a woman in danger are pitiful. Do you get off the train and get the next one, delaying your journey? Do you pretend to be on the phone, and risk getting mugged? When I’m worried, more often than not I just sit there silently, fondling the keys in my pocket just in case.

 

The women-only carriages that Jeremy Corbyn has proposed are not perfect solutions, but with a dearth of options for women who rightly feel vulnerable on public transport, the option of a safe space is one that they have the right to. In 2014-15, British Transport police recorded 1,399 sexual offences. One of those was the one I logged. The fact that I have female friends who have also been victims of sexual violence on public transport but never reported it suggests that the figure could be much higher. Something needs to be done.

 

Anne Perkins wrote in the Guardian recently that we should not ‘[segregate] the victims to keep them safe rather than dealing with the perpetrators so that women actually are safe’. However, Corbyn’s policy is not mutually exclusive to dealing with perpetrators and tackling the problem head on. His policy document also outlines plans for public awareness campaigns, and a 24/7 hotline to increase the reporting of sexual crime.

 

The point is that currently there are far too many women who are harassed and abused on public transport. Those complaining that this is an imperfect or short-term solution should remember that at least it is some sort of solution. It does not seem hypocritical to fight the patriarchy, whilst taking imperfect steps to avoid its harms, as long as we keep our eye on the big picture of building a world in which those imperfect steps no longer need to be taken.

 

Would Corbyn’s policy encourage victim blaming? Potentially, but that’s already a problem that women face. If it wasn’t ‘what carriage were you sitting in?’, it would just be ‘what were you wearing?’. Women always make decisions that minimise risk to themselves. When I went to a nightclub for the first time, an older girlfriend advised me to ‘wear shorts, so guys can’t put their hands up your skirt’. Whilst it is incredibly depressing that women attempt to lessen their chances of becoming victims of sexual violence, that is not a reason to begrudge them the opportunity to do so.

 

Moreover, the more prominent message the policy would display is that sometimes men can be scary, dangerous, and cause us harm. It recognises that the cultural shift needed to end the problem will take time, and until we have achieved that change, a short-term solution might be needed.

 

Indeed, I’m not completely sold on the idea. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston’s tweet that ‘in countries where women are segregated on public transport, this is a marker for disempowerment not safety’ describes perfectly the intuitive feeling of wrongness about the policy. Nonetheless, this endemic problem needs to be tackled. It’s practically an expected norm to be groped on the tube, and that’s disgusting. Any proposed solution should be investigated for its merits, not ridiculed.

 

If women had safe spaces to go to on public transport, then the number of sexual crimes being committed could be reduced. It’s not ideal, it should not be victims who have to adapt their behaviour, and any victim who has chosen not to adapt their behaviour should absolutely never be questioned on that decision. However, those women that do want to move to women-only carriages, because they see potential dangers and wish avoid them, should be provided for.

 

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