Women-only carriages idea shouldn’t just be dismissed

Returning home late at night this week, I sat in a women-only carriage on the train. Not one of those that may spring into being if UK Labour leader candidate Jeremy Corbyn’s controversial suggestion were to become reality, but one that I and half a dozen other women silently agreed to colonise.

I chose this carriage after walking past two others that were populated solely by men and rejecting them on that basis. It wasn’t that any of the men I glimpsed through the carriage windows looked particularly threatening; I just thought I’d be safer surrounded by the sisterhood – and clearly the other women who joined the carriage felt the same way.

Like every woman I’ve ever met, I have stories of being sexually harassed on public transport. Mine aren’t even that bad. Reading accounts on the Everyday Sexism Project makes me feel positively lucky that I’ve only been mildly groped and vaguely menaced. But I’ve known since I was 12 years old, when a creep followed me home from the station uttering threats, that public spaces are not safe for women.

Knowing that we can’t feel safe on public transport, women, tragically and sort of heroically, adapt. We walk home at night with our keys poking out of our clenched fists, ready to use them as a weapon, even as we fight to change violent attitudes to women. We know the violence is not our fault, we’re not victim-blamers, but we still don’t want to get raped or stalked or abused, so we do a hundred little things – we move carriages, we sit near the bus driver at night, we studiously read our books and ignore the stares of psychopathic intensity from the man sitting opposite us, we choose to stand up rather than sit in the empty seat near the drunk men, even if it kills our feet to stand in heels the whole way home, that is, if we haven’t changed into flats so we can run away faster, should the need arise.

Women all have stories of how we change our behaviour, and clearly Corbyn has heard them. “It is unacceptable,” began his policy document on ending street harassment, “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.”

Indeed. It is completely unacceptable, and more should be done to stop it. Corbyn suggests a variety of policies, from creating a ministerial role for women’s safety, and having a 24-hour hotline for women to report sexual assault, to awareness campaigns. And then, cautiously, with reassurances that he’s just brainstorming here, he puts forward the idea of women-only carriages.

Predictably, there has been outrage – and I’m sympathetic to it. There’s a legitimate question to be asked about whether women-only carriages would actually make women safer. Better lighting and more station staff are higher on my wishlist. I’d be more likely to sit in a carriage where I knew there was a guard on duty than in a women-only carriage.

But I’m unconvinced by those who are rejecting women-only carriages on principle. “That’d be an admission of defeat, rather than a sustainable solution,” said Liz Kendall in response to the suggestion. As a policy, it does feel like an admission of defeat, an acknowledgment that women are not safe on trains and an accommodation of that reality, rather than a middle finger shoved aggressively in the face of sexual harassment. But, of course, trains aren’t safe for women now, and day in, day out women are negotiating the dangerous reality they live with, as I and half a dozen other women did on Monday night in our makeshift women’s carriage.

Feminism has not failed when it embraces concessions and better-than-nothing solutions to protect women, while at the same time fighting to change the reality that makes women unsafe. Other things should be done to fight harassment of women. But if individual women can be protected from harm by women-only carriages – and I’m not saying they can, Corbyn may have to go back to the drawing board – then we should embrace them, even as we lament their necessity. – By Kate Lyons

Image – AFP