Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty


No, we don’t need female “safe spaces”

Singling out women on public transport, as MPs suggested last week, only perpetuates the problem, says Lucinda Borrell

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By Lucinda Borrell on

At some point every year, there are calls to make public transport, particularly in the world’s capitals, a “safer place” to travel – at least, they mean, for women. In the past five years, the number of sexual-harassment complaints on the Underground in London alone has doubled. Police now issue pocket-sized leaflets at London Tube stations to educate commuters on how to report harassment; TfL ad campaigns urge us to “report it to stop it” – the issue is prolific and not diminishing.

So, perhaps it is inevitable that a group of politicians – predominantly male ones at that – would decide they must do “something” about it. Last week, Chris Williamson MP was the latest public figure to suggest a potential fix to the problem. The revolutionary idea? Having female-only carriages on trains to act as a “safe space”. While these intentions are well meant, the fact that this is even considered a solution for political influencers is actually a symptom of how the problem arises in the first place.

And it’s something that worryingly high numbers of women have experienced. I know I have. Two years ago, on my way home from a night out – after a long shift at work – I was followed home by a man who tried to grope me. I wasn’t drunk and I was two streets away from my doorstep. While the people I told were primarily furious that this had taken place, their secondary response was that I “shouldn’t be out so late on my own”. I refused to leave the house for five days.

The point to my story is essentially this: the men who grab and harass women on the Tube, or any form of public transport, are not opportunistic. They are not doing it simply because the women are there, but because, fundamentally, they feel dangerously entitled to what they wish when it comes to women. Following this logic, not only are these men likely to just commit their offences elsewhere, but having a “women-only” carriage on the train will mean they will be even more likely to see the women not in that carriage as fair game.

While endorsing methods that segregate women and men, you are upholding some of the backward social ideals that create the problem in the first place

Today, women have more rights than ever before. We can vote, we can have jobs, we can own property without being married. Despite this, we are still continuing for the right to control our own bodies. This new solution perpetuates the idea that women themselves should be responsible for not being assaulted. In rape cases, a woman’s sexual history, wardrobe and drinking patterns are often scrutinised to cast reasonable doubt on her accusations; frequently, female pupils are sent home because their school uniform (often their skirts) are considered distracting to their male peers; and, most recently, in India a senior politician suggested that women out past midnight deserve to be attacked.

Across in Paris, a female-only taxi company recently launched, with a female-only workforce (all of the drivers are women). The idea behind the service is – allegedly, at least – that its passengers feel more comfortable spending one-on-one time with a driver of the same sex.

However, with its personal shopping options, the €50 cost for a one-hour ride and the fact that male customers aren’t actually excluded from the services, this “solution” is more of a marketing ploy – one that actually encourages sexism, rather than one that is concerned for the welfare of its (predominantly middle-class) clients. It isn’t endorsed by the official governing bodies.

And even if it were, why should I, or my entire gender, have to travel separately to men to prevent ourselves from being attacked? It is also worth considering that not all sexual predators are male. In fact, while 85,000 women are raped a year, so too are 12,000 men. Women too can commit sexual offences, particularly against other women, although less research has been done within this field.

So, to Chris Williamson MP – and Jeremy Corbyn MP, who has previously backed this as an idea – the women of London really do appreciate the fact that you are trying to keep us safe. However, while endorsing methods that segregate women and men, you are upholding some of the backward social ideals that created the problem in the first place.

No woman is “fair game”. Instead of singling us out, how about we start talking about tackling the perpetrators of these crimes?


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Photo: Getty
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Sexual assault

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