Last Updated: Mon Jun 27, 2011 08:11 am (KSA) 05:11 am (GMT)

Muna Khan: Keep on moving. Or why women-only transportation doesn’t have me jumping for joy.

A Women-only metro compartment in Cairo. (File photo)
A Women-only metro compartment in Cairo. (File photo)

Guatemala became the 15th country to launch a women-only transport scheme with dozens of buses in the capital in a bid to address sexual harassment. It has been met with a mixed response, as has been the case in other countries where reaction varies from relief to “this only addresses the problem on a surface level.”

Women who use public transport anywhere in the world are subjected to sexual harassment with the difference being that some countries take the offense seriously (punitive action) while others address the issue by introducing women-only sections—by cordoning off sections or having women-only vehicles.


Which of the two has served as a deterrent to sexual harassment? It’s like asking if capital punishment has succeeded in deterring criminals.

Let’s not even talk about the double standard on how it’s acceptable to segregate a gender but outrageous an idea if we did the same for the disabled, aged or race.

A similar disdain should be given to gender-specific transportation as a long-term solution to sexual harassment women are subjected to. It simply does not address the issue of sexual harassment—especially once the woman is off the bus. What can we expect next: women-only roads, walkways and so forth to ensure her safe passageway free from violence or abuse?

The notion that this is a protective measure for women was the same rationale behind the Taliban banning women from sight in Afghanistan in the early 2000s; they were doing it to protect them from the reality of violence and sexual harassment.

I’m certainly not likening governments in Guatemala, Mexico, Japan, India, Egypt to name a few that have initiated women-only transport schemes, to the gruesome Taliban but what good came of their hair brained idea of locking women up? About as much as good as did the Western world’s war on Afghanistan to liberate its women.

(Nothing in case you missed the aftermath on 9/11.)

I don’t want to berate these initiatives because I do understand how they give women greater access to employment opportunities and education—but they are temporary painkillers so to speak. The issue is about keeping women safe in the public realm, not just on pink buses (did I mention the buses in Guatemala are pink?).

The job of any government is to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men and for this to happen, efforts need to be made to raise awareness amongst men on respecting women. Authorities in Mexico did just that: a women-only transport scheme was launched alongside a public awareness campaign teaching men that it is illegal to touch women inappropriately. This was followed by an ordinance a few months later that made it easier to prosecute men who harassed women in a public place.

That is the kind of action we need to see.

Simply put, it’s time to focus on the issue of public harassment of women and link it to their workforce participation. Far too often the debate takes a U-turn and talks about women’s behavior and/or appearance or how men want to control her behavior, like they are being denied a sense of entitlement they have to cat calls or groping—or about it being a problem specific to a class or race, as if privileged men of one race are not prone to harassing women.

Pink buses or pink sections on trains are a stopgap arrangement. They do not address the social problem of men feeling entitled to women’s bodies be it on transport, at the workplace or in social situation.

(Muna Khan, currently Editor of Al Arabiya English, will soon take up a new assignment as Senior International Correspondent for the Website. She will focus on writing analyses, blogs, features, and extended country reports. She can be reached at: muna.khan@mbc.net)

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