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Women-Only Train Carriages: Regrettable, but Worth Considering

Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn recently announced that he would be willing to consider the introduction of women-only carriages on British trains, a proposal which was instantly ridiculed by Corbyn’s opponents both within and beyond the party.

However, beneath the cheap political scandal that is stirred up around seemingly anything Corbyn does (including eating cold baked beans, reported in the Daily Mail as almost equal to a dangerous fetish) there is a very important debate to be had about the potential creation of safe spaces for women on public transport. Many people seem to have lost sight of Corbyn’s original statement: he merely said he was willing to consider the carriages as part of an extensive list of potential proposals to keep women safer on public transport. He did not announce women-only carriages as his policy.

Rather than addressing the root of the problems women are facing on public transport, it would be a sticking plaster to physically protect women

Much of the outrage provoked by the idea of women-only carriages stems from the assumption that their introduction would be tantamount to admitting that the UK cannot solve the problem of sexual harassment on public transport in this country, let alone wider societal gender inequalities. Some argue that it would take Britain back to the 1970s (when women-only carriages were last used in the UK), or make us comparable to the supposedly ‘less gender equal’ countries that have these carriages, such as India and Mexico. Rather than addressing the root of the problems women are facing on public transport, it would be a sticking plaster to physically protect women.

As such it is also a tacit admission that women are at risk, a difficult proposal for a supposedly progressive country. Although for many women sexual harassment is a daily grim reality, others take the attitude of ‘I don’t see this happening, I don’t do it, and it doesn’t happen to me, therefore it doesn’t happen at all’. Unfortunately this just isn’t the case. As a woman who has experienced for myself several incidents of sexual harassment both on and outside of public transport in this country, I was still shocked to read that reports of sexual offences on the country’s trains and stations have increased 25% to a record level in 2014-15 (BTP). Although the police have stated that this was largely because of campaigns have encouraged more women to come forward and report offences, it reveals how many went unrecorded in previous years.

The UK should be moving towards imposing fewer distinctions based on gender

Another issue that this proposal unavoidably brings up for discussion is the politics of gender segregation. Like many people, I believe that the UK should be moving towards imposing fewer distinctions based on gender, not least because this is the best way to address the deep rooted inequalities that persist to the detriment of all genders. This proposal sits uncomfortably with the idea that women should be separated from men, even for their own protection. The creation of a safe space also begs the question of whether women who chose not to use these carriages would be further subject to victim blaming, lending themselves to a certain rhetoric ‘if she didn’t want male attention she had the choice of the women-only carriage’, which is a situation nobody seeking to protect women would want.

However, it is morally misguided to attempt to uphold a political ideal when it prevents us protecting real individual women from sexual violence. As much as it is an uncomfortable truth to consider, 2.5% of women in England and Wales (compared with 0.4% of men) have been victims of sexual violence (Office for National Statistics). Any potential solution is worth careful consideration rather than dismissing based on a gut reaction, or petty political point scoring.

Would I personally feel safer travelling in a women-only carriage? Ultimately, yes

Ultimately, Corbyn only stated was that he was willing to consider the idea, because some women had asked him to. Proposals to protect women should come from women ourselves, and all that Corbyn has shown here is that he is willing to listen. Would I personally feel safer travelling in a women-only carriage? Ultimately, yes. But it remains to be seen from consultation whether they are the best solution; and better staffing, policing, lighting and CCTV should definitely also be looked into. Perhaps women-only carriages could be a temporary measure, until we can fully address the gender inequality that has led to them being considered necessary in the first place. Through compulsory sex and relationships education in schools, for example.

If stopping women from being disproportionately at risk of sexual violence and harassment sounds unachievable to you, maybe you have put your finger on why some women would welcome a safe space on public transport, an environment that has proven to be potentially dangerous.

Ruby Hawley

Image: Blende57 via Flickr

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7 Comments on this post.
  • Liam Inscoe-Jones
    28 August 2015 at 11:52
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    Fully expected this to be a reactionary Corbyn-bash piece since that’s all this story really amounts to but you were well ahead of me on that one and used the opportunity to have a considered and thoughtful discussion about the suggestion not who suggested it – very nice piece!

  • Female
    28 August 2015 at 12:08
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    My qualm with women-only carriages is that they heard vulnerable people into one space, which can then make them an easy target. And also leaves them open to jeering.
    Although I absolutely agree that gender segregation isn’t the way to solve gender problems, education is needed.

  • Sammy Howell
    28 August 2015 at 19:23
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    There is a very real danger here that sexual assault is being presented somehow worse than other kinds of assault. Isn’t the truth that ALL assault is equally awful?

    I could be wrong of course, but to me this proposal seems wrong and regressive in fetishising sexual assault as somehow worse than other forms of violent assault. To do that is surely to perpetuate the nineteenth-century myth that women need more protection in society than men, and once you do that you are dangerously close to saying women cannot do everything men can do.

    Of course, sexual assault is awful but surely all violent assault is awful, so shouldn’t we be dealing with violence in society as a whole rather than singling out sexual assault against women as being in particular need of legal (i.e. patriarchal) action.

    Alternatively, working from the Corbyn suggestion, as the vast majority of violent assaults in public spaces are against men and not women the logic of the argument for women-only railway carriages is that there should also be non-aggressive men-only carriages. And what happens if aggressive women start using women-only railway carriages, will we have to subdivide different categories of women too?

    • Ruby
      29 August 2015 at 18:53
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      The point this article is making stems from the fact that sexual assault isn’t necessary more ‘awful’ (although I think there is an argument that in some ways it could be considered so due to emotional consequences, possible pregnancy etc. etc.), but that sexual assault against women is particularly prevalent on British public transport at the moment, as we can see from the statistics and personal experience. Women are disproportionately victim to this kind of crime, and the vast majority of the perpetrators are men, so while women are absolutely able to do everything men do, it is only right to consider ways to protect them because they are being attacked in this particular way which is the issue under discussion more.

      However, yes, all types of crime and assault could be reduced with different measures, many of which would be more effective and more ethically and socially comfortable for most people than women-only carriages, such as greater levels of staffing, lighting and CCTV.

  • Rachel Lewis
    3 September 2015 at 16:47
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    I do actually think that sexual assault is worse than a violent assault.
    Firstly, sexual assault rarely actually happens without some kind of violent assault to coerce the victim.
    Secondly, sexual assault affects intimacy, personal relationships, trust, self-esteem, and anxiety generally more than a violent assault.
    This applies to both genders and every person in between.

    As it happens, I don’t think I can support women-only carriages.

  • Geoff
    2 October 2015 at 14:26
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    Pure misandry.

    The idea that I, a person without criminal record or having ever committed a sexual assault against anyone, would be deemed too dangerous to travel with women is offensive beyond measure.

    How dare you assume innocent people are potential criminals by virtue of their sex? This is an abhorrent form of sexism against ordinary, law abiding men.

    If such generalisations were made against women I’m fully aware that women would be up in arms.

    If a person said there should be ‘white only carriages’ because proportionally to their population size, black males commit more crime, you’d be up in arms.

  • Michele noble
    21 March 2016 at 05:39
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    I only used a women onlycarriage once in the 1970s. There was one other woman sitting in it. She engaged me in conversation and then said I was very sensible to get in that carriage as she had the day before heard an assault take place in the next carriage. She frightened the wits out of me. I felt she was lurking in that carriage to assault a female herself. I jumped out at the next stop.

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