Last week, Air India began to reserve six seats on its aircrafts for women travelling alone who do not want to be seated next to men. The move was announced after two incidents of groping were reported to airport authorities. This move echoes those already made on more common forms of public transport, like trains, metros and buses, which all offer segregated spaces for women travellers. So are segregated spaces for women a positive and encouraged outcome? Not entirely.
Segregated spaces for women are a nuanced issue that don’t allow an easy yes-or-no answer to fall back on. The importance of safe spaces for women is undeniable. They provide a sanctuary from an often hostile male environment where women are constantly made to feel uncomfortable or objectified by the male gaze, not to mention frequently molested or harassed. A lot of women prefer ladies compartments, not just for the reasons of safety but also comfort. A women’s-only space is often a relief from the constant tension that underlies navigating public spaces that are rife with lecherous gazes or the potential of sexual harassment.
Segregated spaces also foster the possibility for social bonding and solidarity with other women and the creation of a sisterhood which is very important in a world that constantly pits women against each other.
However, that being said, it is important that occupying these safe spaces are not enforced upon women, or depicted as our only option for ‘safety’. The problem with the discourse around ‘safety’ is that it often slips back into the language of patriarchy, and becomes a justification of sexual violence meted out upon women. This blogpost by a woman who was harassed on the Delhi metro recalls how she was repeatedly blamed for “causing trouble” merely for occupying the general compartment. When she spoke up against a man standing uncomfortably close to her, she was asked why she complaining when she had willingly chosen to occupy the general compartment instead of the ladies compartment.
The existence of a segregated space cannot mean that women are not ‘allowed’ to occupy desegregated spaces, or otherwise suffer any indignities in silence. Choosing not to occupy a women-only space ought not to result in sexual violence or victim-blaming. Women cannot be accused of ‘not being safe’ for simply occupying a public (desegregated) space.
It is on this note that it is important to mention that the setting up of segregated space cannot be seen as the replacement of efficient redressal mechanisms for sexual violence. Segregated spaces are often treated as the panacea for all problems of sexual violence, and that no further systems of justice are necessary. A ladies compartment or reserved seats cannot act as the replacement for a sexual harassment complaints cell at every train station and airport. There needs to be a sensitive, vigilant and efficient authority to handle complaints of sexual violence – in addition to the existence of optional segregated spaces.
So to conclude, while segregated spaces ought to exist to provide women with a sanctuary, they should not be a necessity for women to go out without fear of violence. The eventual aim of segregated spaces is, always, a reintegration into society where women and transpeople feel as safe in a mixed environment as they would in a women-only or trans-only space. However, as that currently seems like a pipe dream, optional segregated spaces must exist as an interim measure in the meanwhile.
It is unfortunate that we continue to require special, segregated spaces for women in the 21st century. “Modernity” has not accorded upon women the rights and the freedoms that ought to have been natural to us by now. Change has to begin with erasing the mentality that safety measures are the responsibility of women. Change has to begin with discarding the idea that safety measures must focus themselves on women’s behaviour and mobility. Instead we must focus on the virulence of male entitlement that makes so many men seek to dominate and violate women both physically and emotionally.