Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn, a private German railway company, recently announced a controversial decision to roll out women-only train cars on certain lines they serve. They certainly aren’t the first train company in the world to have women-only cars—such cars exist on trains in Cairo, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur—but these are notable because they just so happen to serve the area near a recent incident of mass sexual assault.
You may remember that on New Year’s Eve, there were more than 1,000 incidents of women being assaulted by men reported at the main train station in the city of Cologne. According to Cologne’s police chief, 600 of those incidents were strictly theft-related. Meaning that at least 400 of them were sexual assault. Now, MR will be having their women-only cars serving trains running from Leipzig to Chemnitz, which just so happens to run near Cologne.
The cars would be optional, of course. The cars would also be monitored by crew, and boys aged 10 and younger would be able to travel on them as well. (So, a woman traveling with her 12-year-old son wouldn’t be able to choose that car? Or she’d have to travel separately from her kid?) According to an MR spokesperson in an interview with German broadcaster MDR:
It has nothing to do with sexual harassment. This is an extra service offer, using the examples of the Austrian train system and the ICE and IC train operators.
Right. And why have some women requested “extra services” like this? Because of things like sexual harassment. It’s not like they’re taking the opportunity to bond with other women Lilith Fair-style while riding the train.
Stuff like this has been tried in Europe before, but other efforts haven’t lasted, usually due to a lack of demand. According to English-language German news outlet, The Local:
Deutsche Bahn, whose single shareholder is the German government, offers a “ladies compartment” on the City Night Line overnight sleeping cars for women traveling by themselves.
The ICE, EC and IC trains run by Deutsche Bahn often also offer optional sections for parents traveling with small children.
A Czech rail operator in 2012 also rolled out a women’s only section where men could also sit, unless the women there said no, and Austrian operator ÖBB also has ladies’ sections.
About 15 years ago in Switzerland, the train operator SBB tried a similar pilot project for female-only compartments, but it was used very little and they decided against continuing it, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
And this isn’t the only place in Europe considering the idea of women-only cars. Back in August, UK Labour Party politician Jeremy Corbyn said that, in the interest of curbing incidents of sexual assault, women-only carriages were something he’d consider if women wanted them, as well as a 24-hour hotline where women could report these incidents. As reported by The Guardian, he said:
It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket. This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews or avoiding certain means of transport.
My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.
I certainly agree that it is unacceptable that women and girls have to adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed, which is why the entire notion of women-only train cars doesn’t sit well with me. I certainly understand the impulse of many women to want women-only spaces out in the world. The statistics on harassment and sexual assault of women are daunting, and we feel so vulnerable all the time, often having very little recourse when things do happen. I get it.
But women-only train cars will only “reduce” sexual assault superficially, the same way that crime would be “reduced” if we all never left our homes. It’s not a real solution. Sure, women will be safe on the train in that one car. But now, they’re coming off a train all at once, off the car everyone will know is the women-only car. Talk about a target. The incidents in Cologne didn’t happen aboard a train, they happened in a train station.
But I suppose that things like properly training staff to respond to these incidents, taking women seriously when they do report incidents of harassment and assault so that more of them feel comfortable coming forward, and teaching our men and boys not to harass or assault women, and making them face stiff penalties if they do — those things are too difficult.
Better to separate women out as much as possible, marginalizing them further, so you don’t actually have to deal with them. Better to put the onus on them, basically telling them If you don’t want to get harassed or assaulted, you should choose to sit here. If not, well then we can’t promise what will or won’t happen to you, because we’re completely unprepared!
I understand why many women would want women-only cars, but they only want them because society as a whole tends to throw them to the wolves with regard to safety, and they’re desperate. How about train companies, local governments, and national governments — how about we all — care about the safety of women for real? How about we make that a priority so that stop-gap measures like women-only train cars aren’t necessary? We’ve yet to really, collectively try that. That would be amazing.
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