The Fallacy of Sending Women to the "Back of the Bus"


Egypt is just one of many countries that offer voluntary segregation on their public transportation systems. Fifteen countries in total have instituted some sort of “woman’s only” section in public transportation, including Japan, India, Indonesia, Guatemala, Brazil, the UAE, and soon South Korea. Each case is unique in its circumstances, given the various social factors and laws that surround the protection of women outside the transports. But the question remains, is such social segregation necessary?

If we focus on the long-term, the answer is a resounding “no.”

The reasoning behind the implementation of “women’s only” sections on metros and other public transport appears appropriate on the surface. Sexual harassment toward women in these cities is rampant. For Cairo, the often cited figure for harassment is based on a 2008 Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights Report that stated 83% of local women and 98% of foreign women reported sexual harassment, with 62% of men admitting that they had sexually harassed a woman at some point. Creating a section for women on public transport can immediately help stem the problem of unwanted attention and provocation. It can also encourage women who may have been dissuaded from taking public transport in the past to become more active in the labor and education sectors, as they are dependent on the males in the household for transport. Indeed, women’s initial reactions towards these sections have been positive, especially since this service is optional.

Yet while these segregated cars are in theory optional, once instituted, women are expected to use them and they therefore become, in practice, the only method of transport available to women. Existence of one option negates the other in this case, meaning that the expectation coupled with the intrinsic and extrinsic pressures to use such a section practically forces a woman to choose the women’s section. Surely there were and are brave women who still choose the unisex sections, but at what point in time will those women – under increasing leers and stares, dwindling numbers of their own sex, and inevitable worsening harassment conditions – continue to do so?

Other issues arise as well. The construction of these women-only cars may perpetuate the perception that women inherently need to be singled out, protected, and isolated. In essence, creating this kind of divide may facilitate the idea, real or imagined, that division is necessary. As Muna Kahn astutely points out, as soon as we have established that the best method to protect women is to segregate and isolate them from deeply inherent patriarchal problems of a society, where do we draw the line? How long until all crowded, public urban spaces become the target for such segregation?

Gender segregated public transportation is problematic because a physical partition creates a long-term psychological one. The cities that have opted for this measure should take notice that other, more effective options exist to protect women and curtail patriarchy, many of which fall within the state’s legislative powers. A more adequate solution to the problem would seemingly be to raise awareness through gender friendly grassroots movements and civil society, anti-harassment campaigns, and beefed up security on public transport systems. Governments could also introduce gender egalitarian legislation and take a harder stance through punitive action on offenders.

There is no better display of the corrosiveness of a society than its treatment of women within the home, within the public sphere, and at the political level, and increasingly Egypt and the rest are failing all three tests.

Instead of solving the problem, these states are just masking a much deeper, long-term one. Are Cairo and others slowly creating another “back of the bus”?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons