Thursday, January 31, 2008

Safety in Public Spaces

Last week Mexico City announced it would be setting up women-only buses as a response to increasing sexual harassment. (Mexico City has long had women-only cars on the subway.) This week Jessica Valenti, guest blogger on the Nation's blog, questioned the logic of creating women-only spaces for their own protection. She quotes herself writing in the Guardian on women-only spaces:

There's no doubt the harassment women face in public spaces needs to be addressed - whether it is on the street, the train, or even the internet. We've been subjected to regular catcalls and groping for far too long. But while the idea of a safe space is compelling, this international trend - which often comes couched in paternalistic rhetoric about "protecting" women - raises questions of just how equal the sexes are if women's safety relies on us being separated. After all, shouldn't we be targeting the gropers and harassers? The onus should be on men to stop harassing women, not on women to escape them.

Betsy Eudey, director of gender studies at California State University, says that while some single-sex environments could be beneficial - locker rooms where people are expected to be naked are an obvious example - she finds that "segregated spaces only enhance division by sex, and prevent the necessary actions needed to make public spaces safe and welcoming to all".

And then she notes that

Katha Pollitt, in an interview for this article, said that she doesn't think that the rise of women-only spaces will excuse society from confronting harassment and violence, but instead offer a small respite for women in a male-dominated world.

"Obviously, there would never be enough women-only space to accommodate all women all the time - half the subway cars or half the hotels…Women-only space is just a little breathing place for a few women every now and then."

Valenti, however, wonders whether women will be blamed for their harassment when they chose not to use the "safe" space provided.

I have some ideas on this subject myself (qv, for instance, a certain scene in Stretto), but I'm more interested in hearing how the issue strikes you-all.


Cheryl said...

For your added enjoyment I bring you Glenda Larke on women-only check-out queues.

By the way, in all this fuss about gender-neutral bathrooms, have you ever seen anyone kick up a fuss because women might dress as men and go into men's bathrooms?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks for the link, Cheryl. Seeing a real-life example of how far gender segregation can go adds to the argument, I think, that this a perhaps dangerous, certainly counterproductive strategy.

I was reminded, by the way, when reading that post & its comments of a story (perhaps apocryphal) that Golda Meir proposed to her cabinet that instead of telling women not to go out alone at night they ought, rather, to slap an evening curfew on men who go out without a female escort-- until, that is, the men had finally understood that raping/harassing women alone after dark was simply not acceptable behavior.

Vandana Singh said...

Hi Timmi:
Growing up in New Delhi I had to learn to deal with being harrassed on buses and other public places --- what is euphemistically called eve-teasing in India. I could tell you stories! Anyway fairly soon after I started traveling by public transport (in my mid-teens) I had to learn to project a boldness and coldness I did not necessarily feel in order to deal with the roadside romeos and creeps. It was enough to turn one into a homicidal, man-hating virago if it wasn't for the fact that there were plenty of decent men around as well. Anyway Delhi Transport Corporation used to run a few women-only buses, and even the regular buses all had seats for women and the disabled, which were much of the time occupied by hefty looking guys, in my experience. I learnt to be tough and agressive thanks to Delhi buses but on the few occasions I boarded a women-only bus, I cannot tell you what a relief it was to relax my guard.

I think segregation can at best be a temporary respite; a real solution has to do with dealing with such men and the attitudes that enable them to act like this.

I was in Delhi two weeks ago and noticed that the young women there walk as though they own the planet, although Delhi is still not safe at night (probably for men too, in some areas) so maybe a change is coming, if slowly.

Vandana Singh said...

P.S. I came across this site about harassment in New York.

Anonymous said...

At first upon reading about the harrassment women endured on public transportation, I was upset. Then, upon reading about the safety to be found on the women-only busses, I was relieved. Well--isn't that a typical fictive set-up!? The articles themselves on this (yeah, sorry the usuall cnn/msnbc stuff online) do nothing to point the finger at the men. Only "Oh, poor women, now they're safe." No reporter went up and said, "Hey, Antononio! Why are you acting in such an inexcusable manner? What would you doif someone did that to your mother? Your sister? Your wife?" So even the reporters are complicit in this.

How long before this becomes mandatory? How many steps between this and the burqua?

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I just posted my reaction to this on my self defense blog. Thanks for alerting me to it. I used some of Vandana's comments in my post and would welcome comments over there as well.

MidSouth Mouth said...

yes, butch-appearing women/transmen are harassed in either bathroom

Cheryl said...

That wasn't quite what I meant, Mouth. You are quite right that actual trans people get harassed everywhere, but the big fuss about gender neutral bathrooms is that they will be used as an excuse for straight men to put on a dress and go into women's bathrooms ("and rape our daughters", as the claim usually goes). I don't see any parallel concern that straight women will wear pants, go into men's bathrooms and rape our sons. It would be seen as a ludicrous claim. Women are usually painted as potential victims, men are not.