The grope from Ipanema

Do Rio's new ladies-only subway cars protect women, or patronize everyone?

Published May 3, 2006 6:29PM (EDT)

What do Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and, perhaps most famously, Tokyo now have in common? AlterNet reports that last week, Brazil's second-largest city became the third metropolis to designate women-only cars on its subways and commuter trains. Mandated during rush hour by state law, the lady cars are marked by a pink sticker (natch) or a womany-shaped symbol.

The special cars were not designed to give women a little privacy for, say, changing their clothes from work to play or plotting global domination. They're a government response to the apparently rampant problems of groping and sexual harassment by men.

But if you assumed the words "hailed as a victory for women's rights groups" would appear in this story, you'd be wrong. As it turns out, none of them was consulted. And few of them are happy about that, or about the law itself. "Advocacy groups ... consider the measure to be a serious step backwards for women's rights in Brazil -- and have begun a campaign to declare the state law unconstitutional," AlterNet reports. "Women's advocates acknowledge that harassment is pervasive and grossly under-reported, but they believe that the law is an illegal form of discrimination that will only legitimize the abuses that still occur. Calling the creation of the law an act of 'political opportunism,' Rogeria Peixinho, coordinator of the Campaign for Brazilian Women, says that the proposal was constructed without any consultation of women's groups or organizations, either within or outside of the government."

(Not that you would have known this from Reuters' quickie context-free coverage, which was relegated, muito obrigada, to the "Oddly Enough" department.)

AlterNet says that many individual women do welcome the grope-free zone. The law's author and backers call it a response to clear popular demand. One survey showed that 67 percent of citizens support it. Even those who admit that the law is only a surface solution are at least "grateful to have one less thing to worry about during the long commute home."

But others say the pink cars are going in the wrong direction. "What we need is a campaign to make society aware of this problem and why it happens, and not just put all men in the same category," said Peixinho. Her suggestion: "that signs be posted throughout the transportation system that denounce groping and sexual harassment and that legal, psychological and other forms of support be made more widely available to victims." Other activists have protested the law by standing on train platforms and trying to segregate passengers according to signs marked "Blacks," "Gays," "Foreigners," "Women" and "Men."

Women-only cars: Are they an expedient stopgap, even a welcome oasis? Or a weird pink, paternalistic band-aid that "protects" women, insults men and ultimately lets gropers off the hook? What do you think?

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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