The new Darjeeling Limited: No guys allowed

Are sex-segregated commuter trains the answer to India's gender relations problems?

Published September 16, 2009 8:17PM (EDT)

There are few things more irritating than dragging yourself out of bed after too little sleep and packing into a cramped, rush hour train car only to find that some dude crushed in next to you has something witty or randy to say about your boobs. Even worse? The discovery that said creep isn't planning to keep his hands to himself. So what's a lady commuter to do, besides yell, change cars or exact public revenge, Holla Back-style?

For some Indian women, the solution just got a bit simpler: A new fleet of ladies-only trains allows them to subtract men from their daily commuting equation altogether. Now, sex-segregated cars are hardly a new thing; Lynn Harris wrote about them over three years ago. They've long been a fact of life from Mexico to Japan to Brazil -- and India has tried them, too. But there, The New York Times' Jim Yardley reports, "with trains badly overcrowded, men would break into cars for women and claim seats." And that's why India's four most populous cities, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta, have been treated to eight new trains, dubbed Ladies Specials.

The women Yardley interviews seem almost uniformly thrilled with the trains. One long-time commuter celebrates the absence of "vegetable sellers, pickpockets, beggars" and other men. Others talk about the staring, catcalling and groping the Ladies Specials have prevented. But not everyone is thrilled with the new commuter apartheid. Men complain that while their female counterparts get bright, clean, new trains, they are forced to ride dark, filthy, old ones. One Ladies Special ticket taker even reports that "local boys will come and use the bathroom on the train."

Yardley notes that what's happening on India's trains seems endemic of a larger struggle for women's equality. The author also points out that many of the country's most influential politicians -- including Sonia Gandhi, who holds India's most powerful position -- are women. And since India began economic reforms in the early 1990s," writes Yardley, "women have entered the urban work force, initially as government office workers, but now increasingly as employees in the booming services sector or in professional jobs."  But while the female workforce has doubled in the past 15 years, those developments have coincided with a spike in violence against women: "Between 2003 and 2007, rape cases rose by more than 30 percent, kidnapping or abduction cases rose by more than 50 percent, while torture and molestation also jumped sharply." Mala Bhandari, who runs a women's and children's rights organization, tells Yardley that women's employment outside the home has troubled the barrier between the public and private spheres. The social tension that results from this, she explains, can be a threat to women's security.

But are segregated trains really the answer? On the one hand, the Ladies Specials seem like a necessary measure at a moment when Indian women can't seem to make it to work without enduring degradation or abuse. On the other, it's hard to see them effecting any long-term change in the way women are treated. As Dr. Ranjari Kumari, director of India's Center for Social Research points out, "You really need to make every train as safe as the Ladies Specials." And if there's one thing we've learned from the civil rights movement, it's that "separate but equal" doesn't work -- even if it is the oppressed group that gets the shiny, new trains. Personally, I'm hoping it won't be too long before Indian men and women can ride to work together again, safely.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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