The Ladies-Only Subway Car

July 30, 2012

Recently, I went to Egypt for a vacation with my dad. We visited the Great Pyramids of Giza, pharaohs’ tombs, ancient temples, and museums. We rode camels at sunrise and took a boat ride on the Nile River at sunset. In addition to soaking in the country’s ancient history, we absorbed its current culture, visited Tahrir Square, talked to people who participated in the 2011 revolution, witnessed two protests on the street, and attended anti-street harassment meetings and events. To alleviate our loved ones’ concerns for our safety, we always scheduled a driver or took a taxi to get around. But when we had two hours free on our last afternoon, I suggested that we ride the subway.

I’ve spoken, read, and written about women-only public transportation for years, but until this trip, I’d never actually seen it in practice. I wanted to. I knew that Cairo had women-only subway cars.

On a crowded subway platform in downtown Cairo, groups of Egyptian women clustered together under brightly lit blue signs that read “Ladies,” while men and a few women spread out across the rest of the platform. Once a subway train arrived, everyone rushed to board. Most women piled into the ladies-only cars, which were designated by red signs above the doors. I joined them.

A few women assisted me when my bag got stuck in the closing doors. While it is not unusual to see women without head coverings on the streets, as I looked around the subway car, every woman was wearing a hijab. Sweat poured from our faces because the car had no air conditioning despite the 110-degree heat. No one talked, but one woman who was getting off at the next stop gestured to offer me her seat. I thanked her, but I didn’t take the seat because I too was getting off at the next stop.

Leaving the train, masses of bodies churned past each other. One woman sought me out and spoke to me in English. She asked where I was from and wished me a nice stay.

Next I rode in a regular car, where I was one of only three women among a mass of men. The two other women were accompanied by men who protectively wrapped their arms around their female companions. I felt much less comfortable there than I did in the ladies-only car, in part because I was so out of place. While most men left me alone, one man standing next to me stared at me for the entire two minutes. I avoided making eye contact with him and was relieved to leave the train at the next stop.

Most people in the United States are shocked when I tell them that other countries have resorted to women-only public transportation because the sexual harassment is so bad. From the research I did for my book about street harassment, I know that major cities in countries ranging from Japan and Mexico to India and Egypt have subway cars or buses that are reserved just for women.

While I’ve heard women say that they are glad when they can ride in the women-only cars and take a break from being on guard and wary of male passengers, I don’t believe it is the solution.

First, logistically, segregation does not solve the problem of harassment. Often, women-only transportation is only offered during rush hour and on major lines. For the rest of the day and to get other places, most women must use the regular trains and buses. Also, platforms and bus lines are not fully sex-segregated, nor are the streets people walk to reach the buses and subways. So there are plenty of opportunities to endure harassment.

Second, from a gender equality standpoint, it’s frustrating that governments think that the solution is gender segregation. Don’t we want integration and equality? Would segregation ever be considered a solution for race-based harassment? Why is it the answer when it comes to men sexually harassing women?

Instead, I think that governments and community groups should focus on teaching respect in schools, holding awareness campaigns, encouraging people to report harassers, and enforcing punishments for the worst perpetrators.

What do you think? Do you see another solution? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

By:   |   July 30, 2012


  1. Kitty Richardson says:

    There are so many situations around the world. As an usually tall woman I have rarely felt intimidated or concerned for my safety. That said, there have been a few situations when I have felt some “vibes” and have taken my gut feelings seriously. One needs to be aware and protect oneself in a given situation. And at the same time I am totally committed to lending my efforts to see that women are protected and respected in our daily life. Thank you, Holly, for furthering that goal.

  2. Bauer Carol says:

    I rode the New York City subway system to college and to work for years and never experienced any sexual harassment. That was many many years ago so perhaps this problem in today’s public transportation says something about the degradation of our society in the many years since I was a student and a worker.

  3. Robin says:

    Segregation is not the answer, but I would take advantage of a women only subway car if one was available.

  4. Kay N. Koehler says:

    It does seem like harassment should be addressed for what it is, not pushed aside in favor of gender segregation…weird.

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