In a recent discussion, Derby North MP Chris Williamson suggested that ideas for female only carriages on trains should be brought up again. As sexual harassment and assault on public transport rises, the Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services believes that it could offer a ‘safe space’ for the thousands of women who use trains every day.
His suggestion, one which Jeremy Corbyn had to climb down from in 2015, was met with uproar. Both Conservative and Labour members angrily decried Williamson’s idea as ‘wrong’ and a ‘backwards’ step. Jess Phillips, the firebrand Birmingham Yardley MP and a member of Williamson’s party, tweeted that ‘If you take your feminist cues from Saudi Arabia, you’ve gone wrong.’ Other MPs, including Stella Creasey also decried the suggestion.
They, of course, are right to be angry.
It is wrong to deny that sexual harassment is a problem on public transport. In 2012/2013, the number of reported cases was 650. In the 2016/2017 year, it had doubled to a disgraceful 1,448. What one must remember is that not every case will be reported, for various reasons, so the true number is probably a lot higher, but nobody will ever truly know. Most harassment will be inappropriate touching designed as squeezing past or groping, but may go as far as people touching themselves inappropriately. Unfortunately, the chance of being harassed when travelling on the train happens, and though it shouldn’t, it is becoming much more of a problem than it should be in a civilised society, or even society in general.
There are, however, several problems with Mr. Williamson’s proposal.
Firstly is the fact we do not live in Saudi Arabia.
In many countries across the world, men and women living apart is simply a way of life. They eat separately, socialise separately, and travel separately, for both religious and cultural reasons. Here, in the UK, however, we live in an integrated society. Of course, some may choose to segregate from the opposite gender, but the vast majority of British citizens live in a society where we mingle. Of course, that is not to say that there will be a full on gender division if we introduce female-only carriages, but that is not the society we live in.
In a lot of the countries where gender specific carriages exist, sexual harassment, especially on public transportation, is an even bigger issue than it is here. Whilst it is becoming common in the UK, it is common in Japan, India and Malaysia. India itself has a huge problem with eve-teasing, with the sexual harassment of women a daily part of their lives. Female only transport does not help the problem, it contributes to it. By separating the potential victims from assaulters, it does not stop it from happening. Those who harass will merely not have one more ‘excuse’ to do it. If they really want to harass women, they will do it wherever there is a chance, and may even go out of their way in cases of heinous rape crimes. Removing the women will not stop it from happening. The problem will remain, and it has done in a huge way in the aforementioned places.
It makes the women feel like it is their responsibility to not be attacked. If they want to go in the mixed carriages, like if they are with a male friend or relation, and something happens, the inevitable question from the idiots will be ‘why didn’t you go in the female only carriage?’ Why should they? If a woman feels comfortable on that carriage, or if the women only one is busy, or if she wants to be with a man, she should be perfectly entitled to safely and without incident. I wish I didn’t have to go down the road of victim blaming (‘why didn’t you remove yourself from the situation’), but there is some inevitability it will happen. We do not live in a compulsory consumer society; these women should not be forced to take that service just for protection.
Secondly, we need to stop acting as though only women are victims and that only men are attackers.
Yes, the majority of reported cases will be from women about men, but we need to remember where we live in a society that has stopped men from being open about assault. If a man is attacked by a woman, there is that feeling that he is ‘weak.’ If a man is attacked by a man, he may be worried about the connotations of homosexuality, seen by some as still somewhat shameful.
Furthermore, women may also molest others. Whether that be men, or whether they assault another woman, it may happen. Acting as though all women are innocent, pure little flowers and that all men are violent attackers is double sided sexism.
Not every victim is a woman. Not every criminal is a man.
That is not to mention the cost of adding female only carriages, but the societal and personal implications are a lot more important.
So what do we do?
Firstly, we encourage victims to go forward. Let’s stop being a society and justice system that gives assaulters a slap on the wrist. Let us recognise the impact that it can have on the victim and that by not reporting it, it may allow the person who did it to go on and do it to other people without repercussions. We must ensure that the victims are taken seriously, whilst also ensuring that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. We must ensure that those who falsely accuse are dealt with justly so that real victims are taken seriously, and those who are innocently accused are not vilified by society.
Instead of wasting money on these carriages, we need to step up protection, with better trained Transport Police and CCTV in a way that watches out for those who get away quickly, but without our civil liberties being eroded too much. In the chaos of rush hour, not everyone will see who has assaulted them-thousands of people on the train every day; they may be completely indistinguishable to victims.
As a woman, I do not need a ‘safe space.’ I need proper action on gropers and molesters, and I need society to stop acting as though I’m only a victim because of my gender. Williamson and Corbyn should understand why the idea makes Nicky Morgan ‘uncomfortable,’ and why Liz Kendall believes it’s ‘an admission of defeat, and not a sustainable solution.’
Liz Kendall is right- it’s not a solution, it’s a way of covering their backside.