I love British headlines. More often than not, they scream blue murder about something which would seem quaint, even comforting, to the average hardened South African reader. A quick search of Daily Mail (don’t judge) headlines reveals gems such as: Britain set for two-week heatwave (“We’re going to hit the magical figure of 90F (32C).”), More agony for Kate and William as Irish tabloid publishes topless pictures, How a slice of cake nearly killed MP Jo…sigh, the definition of first world problems, no?
Member of Parliament Jo Swinson, the subject of the last headline, recently made the news again regarding another matter which may seem trivial on the surface, but actually hints at a more fundamental issue regarding attitudes to women and feminism in the workplace. A heavily pregnant Swinson was made to stand during a half-hour long crowded parliamentary session because no-one offered her their seat. Undoubtedly, many (male and female) MPs present at the session were experiencing a fierce internal struggle between their instinct to give up their seat for someone who might be in physical distress and their fear of being labelled as sexist for assuming the famously feminist Swinson was too weak to stand.
I don’t believe that the offering of a seat to a pregnant (or, for that matter, elderly, injured or disabled) woman is a feminist issue – surely it’s just a form of courtesy extended to someone who is obviously less comfortable standing than you are. But it did make me think about the fact that economically active women – not just the pregnant ones – do have different requirements of public spaces from men. One of the most obvious places where this may be an issue is in the use of public transport. Speaking only for myself, as a woman, I suspect that I might be more concerned about personal safety (how well lit a station is), carrying my luggage (the availability of escalators and lifts) and my ease of movement (the height between the train and the platform versus the height of my heels) than the average man. These considerations do not make me any less powerful or more high maintenance than my male counterparts (as they would have their own unique needs as well), but it is interesting to measure public transport systems from a female perspective.
Below are some interesting examples of how public transport systems of various cities have been developed with (and, in some cases, most definitely without) their female users in mind. Perhaps these anecdotes can be seen as proxies for how much gender equality is valued in various cities around the world.
Despite London having one of the most highly-developed public transport networks in the world, with plenty of security, information and assistance, it was found in a Transport For London survey that 15% of women and girls had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on the transport network. This led to the formation of Project Guardian in April 2013, aimed at improving levels of reporting of sexual offences, creating an environment on public transport that does not tolerate intimidation and sexual harassment. With 2000 trained officers, the project has seen a 20% increase in the reporting of sexual offences on the transport network. From 1 April to 31 August there was a 32% increase in the detection of sexual offences. An online awareness-raising campaign was carried out on Twitter by the British Transport police during a week of action in September, via which Twitter users could share their experiences of harassment while using public transport.
Jerusalem is the capital city of a liberal and democratic society, but until 2011 so-called Mehadrin bus lines operated in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish areas of Jerusalem. In these sex-segregated buses, females were made to sit and the back of the bus and use the back door. ‘Modest dress’ was also a requirement for women wishing to use these public buses. In January 2011, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that gender segregation was unlawful and abolished these buses, but before and since then, incidents in which women were ordered by ultra-Orthodox men to sit at the back of buses and were abused when they refused, have been reported. Local and international politicians, and religious leaders have publicly condemned this behaviour, and several commuters, including Tanya Rosenblit, have made headlines for taking a stand against this outrageous form of harassment.
Cities in Indonesia, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Guatemala have caught on to an idea which has been employed in Japan on and off for over one hundred years: women-only public transport. Amy Dunckel-Graglia, in her article ‘Pink transportation’ in Mexico City: reclaiming urban space through collective action against gender-based violence, writes that “Women-only transportation has become a popular option for urban women around the world who are tired of being groped and harassed in buses, subways and taxis. The separation of men and women in public transit is controversial among feminists, since it does not address or solve the fundamental issue of gender inequality which causes violence and harassment.” Whatever its impact on the underlying issues, and consequent controversy, female commuters in Osaka and other Japanese cities have enjoyed the use of fully restored women-only trains since 2000. Not everyone is happy about this anti-grope measure: a few Japanese men have protested against them, claiming that they’re ineffective against sexual harassment and smack of gender discrimination (against men).
In January 2013, Tallinn in Estonia became the first European capital to extend free public transport to all of its residents. The Tallinn authorities believed that the extra cost incurred would be outweighed by the benefits offered by the decrease in congestion and traffic emissions, and the boost to economic development. Free transport is, of course, a perk for everyone, but such a scheme could be particularly advantageous to women, who have historically been underemployed and underpaid. This increased mobility should make travel easier for those looking for work, and encourage low-paid workers to take jobs they otherwise might not, if the cost of transport means they are not financially worthwhile.
The public transport system of Columbia’s second largest city is a network of clean and efficient metro cars which saves the city 175 000 tons of CO2 and $1.5 billion in respiratory health costs. Part of the system is the cable system which carries passengers up steep mountainsides, which previously could only be traversed using infrequent and unreliable buses, or on foot. Not only has the system made getting around the city more convenient for women, it’s also made it safer, by revitalising communities once ruled over by Pablo Escobar.
Not only is Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where it is illegal for women (even foreigners and tourists) to obtain valid drivers’ licences, but women are discouraged from using public transport as well. Buses and trains have separate screened-off sections for female passengers (with entrances at the back) where they are permitted to use them at all – the bus companies with the widest coverage in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women to make use of their services. Perhaps this is the place where mobility as an indicator of empowerment is the most apparent and true: the World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity. Mobility is a paramount to freedom, and cities whose public transport systems consider the needs of all their inhabitants are key to putting the ‘mobility’ into the ‘upward mobility’ of its women.