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.
Image: Blende57 via Flickr