Why the Delhi Metro needs to get rid of the ladies compartment

Please mind the gap.
Please mind the gap.
Image: Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal
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There are plenty of reasons to take the ladies compartment on the Delhi Metro, a single car reserved for women in India’s capital city. It smells better in the sweaty summers, for one, and the conversations are prime for eavesdropping. There’s also no chance that a guy will strategically position his flip phone to take photos down your high necked t-shirt.

The latter is why so many of the city’s women prefer to trek to very first car of the platform when traveling alone. And Delhi has been dubbed India’s “rape capital” with about 1,400 rapes last year, giving the matter serious weight.

But taking public transportation as a single, working woman around India, I find segregating sexes in this particular metropolitan space not only restrictive, but a step backward for women’s safety in the long run. In a secular, democratic country like India that so carefully, and often clumsily, tries to navigate the space between deep-rooted patriarchy and gender equality, I think the compartment sends a misguided message to Delhi’s public: that women need to be separated from men to be safe, and that Indian men have no self control.

For me that message starts with logistics. While the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation estimates that 25% (or five million) of the metro’s daily passengers are women, only one compartment out of the eight coaches is supposedly a safe, designated space. Meanwhile, as Quartz reported earlier this year, women still struggle to prove that working outside their home is a good option and that commuting isn’t a safety barrier to the workplace.

Have we built a men’s compartment too?

Then there’s the positioning of the compartment. Devika Parashar, a staffer at the Delhi chapter of Hollaback!, a popular anti-street harassment group, says that the positioning makes the women’s compartment less optimal both practically and socially. She thinks the ladies compartment is necessary for safety, but said it should be at the center of the train with men on each side.

But putting the compartment in the center wouldn’t fix a harmful and obvious side effect of grouping the majority of female passengers in any single spot: the rest of the train becomes less hospitable and safe for women.

Three years ago a citizen petition, Please Mend the Gap, sought to address this issue when a woman was molested on the metro’s Yellow Line. It read: “There have been many instances where men have told women that they are not welcome in (the general) compartment and should use the compartment reserved for them. This attitude has become so deeply entrenched in commuters’ mindsets that most accidentally refer to the general compartment as the ‘men’s compartment’.”

I know this “men’s compartment” feeling well. You rush to get the train to your meeting, end up in what’s supposed to be a co-ed compartment, and look up to find yourself a focal point of dozens of men. The rest of your ride is spent at the mercy of an uncomfortable, penetrating gaze that creeps under your skin, tests your patience and leaves you trying to distinguish fear, discomfort and intuition. In some ways, having a women’s compartment is actually reinforcing the idea that men are entitled to the majority of the space.

Pockets of freedom or just an illusion

The women’s compartment isn’t foolproof in assuring safety. Thousands of men have been found in the women’s compartment, and sometimes come in large groups—enough that the metro authorities had to introduce a special fine and guards. Crime on the metro has actually increased six-fold since just last year.

The Delhi Metro authorities have been proactive in attending to women’s safety. They enforce the fines, have posted signs and announcements throughout the rail system, and train their guards to watch out for harassment. But the real solution, I believe, lies in a shift in mindset, fueled by the public visibility of women in every space—not a designated corner—to create actual safety rather than the illusion of a comfort zone. These are not pockets of freedom, as they have been touted, they are further, systematic support for a male-dominated city, requiring women to work around the bias.

If a compartment has more than one or two women, our presence will eventually transition from novelty to normal. There will be less staring and ogling, and a smaller chance of mob mentality when an incidence does occur.

It’s the same power behind campaigns like Pub Bharo, where women filled bars in south India, or Take Back The Streets, which uses street art to represent where women were harassed. Or the feeling I get on the streets in Mumbai, where women of all social backgrounds are more visible, and the incidences of rape and sexual assault is, coincidentally, lower. The city’s trains still have women’s compartments, though the dynamics of a Mumbai local are very different than a Delhi Metro train. Separate but equal does not work any better for gender than it does for race.

Reclaim public space

Harassment in public transport is not unique to India. I’ve faced my share of harassment in the United States and Europe: on the New York City subway, when a guy openly masturbated across from me, and in the Washington, D.C. metro, where several guys on different occasions either catcalled or physically pushed up against me during a crowded ride.

Those cities haven’t adopted a ladies compartment attitude in response—imagine the public uproar if they did. When Collective Action for Safe Spaces, an anti-harassment group in DC, brought up the issue of metro harassment, hundreds of testimonies like mine, and worse, poured in about those cringe-worthy commutes. After Collective Action’s campaign in 2012, the Washington metro announced its own anti-harassment campaign and made it easier to report incidences online, with photos and video files for investigations.

It’s easy to argue that the ladies compartment in Delhi, and other cities like Tokyo and Beijing, is a choice—that women are free to use any part of the train they want. It’s common to hear that the country—despite a history of powerful women politicians and thought leaders—isn’t quite ready, and no woman should have to be a martyr for this cause until it catches up. And yes, I completely empathize with a friend in Delhi who told me that after an already intense day working in the bustling capital, a chance to avoid leering on the way home is a no-brainer.

But encouraging women to remain on the periphery of public spaces, even if this motivation is self-induced, will only perpetuate what we see in cities like Delhi today: streets, trains and workplaces full of men. For me, that’s reason enough for women to enter any compartment of the metro and at any time—physically claiming a space that already belongs to us.