Less than a week after the AIDS Healthcare Foundation held a silent protest in South Africa to call attention to that country’s alarmingly high incidence of rape and other violence against women, a British politician proposed that the London Underground start running peak-hour trains segregated by gender.
Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party candidate for Parliament, pitched the idea of instituting women-only trains during those hours in the evening when women, usually headed home from work, are likeliest to be the targets of unwelcome advances. As sexual assaults on Britain’s railways have jumped, according to The Independent, from just over 1,100 in 2014 to nearly 1,400 already this year, Corbyn insisted that he was only being protective, saying:
It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, [on] public transport and in other public places, from the park to the supermarket.
But several of his political rivals immediately condemned the idea as regressing to the days when British women were not permitted to attend unchaperoned social outings and were legally denied the right to vote. Others noted that the notion of gender segregation not only suggests that women are somehow responsible for their own sexual harassment but also fails to blame men whose actions often rise to the point of criminality.
Even those who thanked Corbyn for at least hearing women’s complaints on the issue nonetheless dismissed his proposal as “retro nonsense.”
Except that the plan really isn’t very retro at all.
In recent years, women-only trains and buses are in place or have been tried in several countries. The Guardian notes that in the Muslim world, Iran and the United Arab Emirates segregate men and women on public transport as a matter of course and that the U.A.E. even supplies taxis painted pink driven by women drivers that carry female passengers only.
In Kenya, a village named Umoja that has effectively banned men is flourishing in its third decade. It was founded in 1990 by Kenyan women who had been raped by British soldiers. (Britain designated Kenya a protectorate, and therefore part of the British Empire, in 1895. In 1920, it officially declared Kenya a British colony. It would be another 63 years before Kenya finally attained independence.)
As it has expanded, Umoja has established a set way of life, adapting and changing to suit the needs of the women who have made it what it is. The Guardian writes:
Inhabitants live extremely frugally, [but] these enterprising women and girls earn a regular income that provides food, clothing and shelter for all. Village leaders run a campsite, a [kilometer] away by the river, where groups of safari tourists stay. Many of these tourists, and others passing through nearby nature reserves, also visit Umoja. The women charge a modest entrance fee and hope that, once in the village, the visitors will buy [jewelry] made by the women in the craft [center].
The women govern themselves, enacting their own laws and setting their own rules. They may take male lovers — accounting for the presence of the 200 children mentioned in the article — but no man is permitted to enter the restricted area. Some observers believe that women raped and otherwise brutalized by Boko Haram militants will soon start looking to Umoja for inspiration and form similar collectives.
Half the world away, meanwhile, Brazil and Mexico have established women-only rush-hour train compartments in response to an avalanche of sexual-harassment claims. But, as The Guardian writes, enforcement is lax and, in any case, such single-sex directives appear to have made little difference. Indonesia even dropped the idea after just six months, citing overcrowding on peak-hour transport.
In Egypt, highly publicized attacks on women during the Arab Spring protests of 2011 cast a light on what many charged was an accepted way of life. Egypt finally got around to criminalizing sexual harassment in 2014.
That came two years after much of the world stood stunned when the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a Delhi bus exposed a pervasive culture of sexual assault in India and other parts of Asia.
The Guardian dryly notes, however, that Egypt and India, along with Japan, while seeking to shield women from unwanted advances, continue to treat them as second-class citizens in other ways: an unofficial ban on women as sushi chefs in Japan, allegedly because of concerns over menstruation; allegations of “forced virginity tests” for anti-military protesters in Egypt; gender-specific abortion and female infanticide in India.
And while some countries claim to be protecting women from the possibly combustive consequences of falling under the male gaze, they make scant effort to put women on an equal footing to men in the workplace, in government or, in the case of gender-specific abortions, in the very act of life itself.
In so global a context, Corbyn’s proposal — which he modified by saying that single-gender carriages were not his ideal solution and, in any case, he would first consult with women before moving forward with his design — provided all too easy an invitation to ridicule and dismiss what some would consider further proof of First World cluelessness.
In the meantime, women everywhere read report after report of sickening attacks on the vulnerable — from United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic accused of raping the very women and children they had been sworn to protect to the Islamic State militants’ depraved sexual assaults on Yazidi women and school-age girls — moving closer, perhaps, to the realization that no amount of protests, silent or otherwise, segregated trains, pink taxis, good intentions or crossed fingers can protect them better than collectively taking control of their future and safety à la the women of Umoja.