Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Islamists’ and women-only carriages

Picture of Jeremy Corbyn, a middle-aged white man with white hair, wearing a cream shirt with a pen in its pocket, standing in front of a microphone in front of a London buildingEarlier this week Jeremy Corbyn (right) gave his support to considering reintroducing women-only carriages on trains, which were found in the UK until the 1970s and still in a number of other countries, particularly Japan. He actually did not come up with the idea himself, but in a policy document noted that he had been asked to consider it by women and was open to the idea:

“Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women-only carriages. My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform to the bus stop to the mode of transport itself,” he said. “However, I would consult with women and hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and on modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”

This has provoked a mixed response, being rejected by the other three candidates (two of them women). Liz Kendall said that ‘gender segregation’ would be like ‘admitting defeat’ while Yvette Cooper said it would amount to “turning the clock back, not tackling the problem”. (Two Labour mayoral candidates, Gareth Thomas and Diane Abbott, said they were open to the idea, however.) Many feminists (and indeed many women) on my social media feeds like the idea, but a particular group claims it would open the door to ‘victim blaming’ against women attacked or harassed while using a mixed carriage. There has also been the suggestion that Corbyn got the idea from his ‘Islamist friends’, and attempts to compare the idea to segregation, as if men and women were to be forcibly separated. Some people clearly see this in the same light as the ‘university segregation’ issue.

There are some clear practical problems with the suggestion, and some political ones. The biggest of the former is the very reason why they were abolished in the first place: the introduction of corridor trains on suburban routes, which is now happening on the London Underground with the new stock being introduced on the Metropolitan/District network and Victoria line. The authorities will surely not introduce all-female carriages knowing they will have to abolish them when new rolling stock is introduced. Second, they will only work on long trains with (at least) six or more carriages, which are only found on some suburban and long-distance trunk routes. London Underground rejected the idea in 1997 as too expensive, because its trains are driver-only and “the logistics of turning each train into one with a carriage reserved for women would be a nightmare”. Many areas of the north are stuck with two- or three-carriage trains and they cannot reserve a third of the space for women. Politically, this could lead to Corbyn himself, the member for Islington, being seen as a metropolitan, middle-class leftie candidate, if he isn’t already (though short trains are found on many routes around London as well, particularly the London Overground) and it won’t win back any northern working-class votes that have been lost to UKIP. Of course, it won’t benefit women in places where buses or trams are the only transport available, either.

A blog post on the “Everyday Victim Blaming” website (run by radical feminist Louise Pennington; the article is reproduced here) took the position that the idea would contribute to victim-blaming (by giving the impression that women had to use the carriages to avoid harassment) rather than dealing with “the root causes of harassment: male entitlement to women’s time and sexual access to women’s bodies”, although it did say that in their Twitter poll, while many of their respondents said that the idea was wrong as it “held women accountable for the criminal behaviour of men”, they also said they would use the carriages if they were available. I’m not sure this argument stacks up particularly well: it’s a question of giving women choice, and while nobody is suggesting that it’s a surefire way of avoiding any unwelcome male attention while on the train (the policy would need to be aggressively enforced for that to be the case), it would make some women feel safer. There are many reasons why some women wouldn’t use the all-women carriage: it might be full, or dirty, or have a bunch of the bullies from their old school in it; perhaps they started their journey in a mixed group, or a group of women that did not feel the need for the safety of the all-women carriage; perhaps the exit at their station is nowhere near where the all-women carriage stops (likely to be a common problem as suburban platforms that take 8- or 12-carriage trains are necessarily long).

Victim-blaming happens everywhere, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to deny women the choice to do avoid situations where they would be vulnerable to harassment — we do not force women to do any of the other things that are deemed ‘risky’ — just because to do the other might be seen as inviting trouble. And if the author supports the right to an abortion up to 40 weeks (that is, for the entire pregnancy), as Louise Pennington does, where is the logic in opposing a woman having the right to choose here? This is not to say that we shouldn’t educate people that women have a right to go about their business without harassment from men, but if something needs to be done now then something needs to be done now. We shouldn’t refuse to take an action that might make people’s lives better now because we imagine the revolution might happen some time soon.

Other parts of the opposition to this idea are coloured with bigotry and particularly Islamophobia. The word ‘segregation’ has been used a lot, as if trains were going to be divided up between men and women with four men’s carriages and four women’s, as found in places like Iran (the majority of the Muslim world does not segregate public transport, although there are women-only carriages on some train and metro systems, though less strictly enforced than in Japan). In fact, there would be one all-women carriage and the remainder would be mixed. There was a comment on an Independent article about the subject in which one ‘lucyhilt’ claimed, “I don’t suppose any connection will be made between the increase coinciding with the arrival of large groups of single males supposedly fleeing countries where women are treated like property and are second-class citizens?”. In fact, harassment is something that men of all races are involved in and I have not heard any suggestion that it has increased recently or that more non-white men are involved.

The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston claimed that “in countries where women are segregated on public transport, this is a marker for disempowerment not safety”. This statement is a classic example of correlation being confused with causation; the women-only carriages are a recognition that women face particular dangers when travelling and is intended to allow them to travel in peace rather than fight a battle for equality when trying to get to work. But what is really disturbing is the continual references to Islam, to the situation in Muslim countries and the assumption that they are all segregated when they are not, or that this is only otherwise done in Muslim countries when in fact Japan and India are not Muslim countries; that we cannot do something to help women feel safe from harassment in public because it would make us a bit less western and a bit more Islamic, and that politicians hasten to disassociate themselves from anything that might associate them from Islam or Muslims. It’s worth remembering that the people who made separate spaces for women an ‘issue’ in British universities a couple of years ago included a group of men who invaded the women’s section during a talk, while secularist forums and events are notorious for the kind of harassment women might be seeking to avoid by going into an all-female space. By contrast, I’ve never seen a man on DeenPort respond to a woman who criticised him with a sexual innuendo.

Almost every article about this subject which accepts comments has a flood of comments from men complaining that it discriminates against men, that men are victims of violence more than women, that “not all men” harass women, and that ‘drunken louts’ bother everyone. The last is a fair point, and in such circumstances, where a women-only carriage is usually available, it might be an idea to remove it so as to segregate the drunks so as to allow peace and quiet for everyone else. But really, nobody is saying all men do it, but the fact is that it only takes a few and the harassment goes on at quiet times as well as busy ones. (However, I suspect some of the men flooding comment boxes with “not all men” remarks are organised groups of trolls that are involved in other online harassment, and some of them are the guilty parties as regards public harassment as well.) And sexual harassment of women is only one type of public harassment; all-female carriages will not offer much protection, even to women, from harassment related to disability or other visible differences.

So, the idea of all-female carriages might be impractical (and as Christian Wolmar suggested, more staff and CCTV might be more effective) but the response has been full of untruth, exaggeration and bigotry. I don’t believe it is a serious imposition on men that they stay out of one carriage in an eight-car train, for a half-hour journey (unlike the really stupid suggestion of a one-night 10pm curfew for men, which I have seen passed round on social media in the past couple of weeks; there is no reason why the innocent majority should be inconvenienced because they cannot be told apart from the harassers, and this idea would have unintended negative consequences for women as well). They are something that were accepted until the introduction of walk-through trains made them impracticable; they were not abolished because anyone imagined that public sexual harassment was a thing of the past. Most men would rather their wives, daughters, sisters and even female colleagues were safe from men who might annoy or threaten them on the way home, which is why women-only carriages were accepted for a century, but it seems some want other women to be available to them at any time and others bridle at making a tiny sacrifice, or at a space being closed to them, so that women might feel safe — something their fathers and grandfathers would have done gladly. Bringing back the women’s carriage might strike some as “turning the clock back”, but if progress means that “white knight” is used as a derogatory term for men who are sensitive to women’s needs, if it means we would rather women of all races and creeds were denied the opportunity to travel in peace so we don’t look like Muslims, if it means a fairly moderate idea encounters a barrage of derision from misogynists and the smut-peddling popular press (which has spent the last half century selling women’s bodies as a commodity), then what do we mean by progress and what is it really worth?

Image source: Garry Knight, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

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