The debate over women-only transit options has been sparked once again as, last month, a German railway company announced they will be rolling out women-only train cars on certain lines (including in the Cologne area). Though the company denies the New Year’s Eve mass sex assault in Cologne had any bearing on their decision, the move has been inevitably contextualized by the media as connected to the global conversation about the restriction of women’s movement in public spaces due to male sexual harassment.
Similarly, a new U.S. ridesharing company described as “Uber For Women” launched this week, billing itself as a safer alternative to services like Uber and Lyft, which have seen hundreds of reported incidents of male drivers sexually assaulting/harassing female passengers. “Chariot For Women” says they will hire only female drivers and accept only female passengers and children. (Though this practice may not actually be legal).
While, as a society, we’ve largely accepted that sexual harassment of women and girls in public is a serious problem, the question of offering women-only transit options is far from settled. Last year, UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, caused a heated debate when he said he would consider women-only train cars as a way to reduce male sexual harassment at night. Critics described the controversial idea as a “Band-Aid solution” and “defeatist,” saying this solution offers women the ability to hide away from male violence temporarily instead of actually pushing men to stop being violent. Some argued it would constitute a form of victim-blaming, sending the message to women that if they chose not to ride in the women-only car and were attacked, it would be their own fault. (These are all valid arguments and concerns, to be sure.) Critics of a recent proposal for women-only “pink carriages” on trains in Australia echoed similar sentiments.
But of all the arguments against offering a male-free transit option, by the far the most interesting are those that claim it would be culturally damaging to our society, in that it reinforces gender stereotypes that say men are natural sexual predators and that women are weak and vulnerable.
This argument is emblematic of a postmodern rhetorical shift that sees the world not as a material, objective thing, but as constructed by various “narratives.” The idea is that women-only transit options perpetuate a harmful, regressive narrative — the concern being that recognizing men as a threat to women will reinforce the stereotype that men are predators who can’t control themselves, effectively constructing that reality.
A similar rhetorical sleight of hand is performed when feminists identify prostitution as a violent institution that exploits vulnerable women. Through a postmodern paradigm of narratives/rhetorical figures constructing reality, the feminist, in the act of critiquing prostitution, is said to “perpetuate stigma” and “negative stereotypes” of the “image/figure” of the poor exploited prostitute with no agency. The feminist is said to create the very reality she decries merely by acknowledging it. This mechanism can be observed in perhaps its purest form when feminists are accused of “upholding the gender binary” by using terms such as “female” and “women” as a material political category in connection to feminist struggles such as maintaining reproductive rights. In this way, feminists are cast as strange conjurers who create entire worlds simply by describing them and erase scores of others, supposedly “excluded” by their descriptions of oppression.
We currently occupy a peculiar historical moment in the women’s movement. When measures are implemented that seek to benefit women, such as male-free public transit options, they are criticized as being “harmful to equality,” in that women are literally being treated differently than men. When we identify the threat of male violence, we are told it perpetuates this violence through stereotypes and “stigma.” Simply invoking the political category of “woman” is said to uphold the binary gender system that oppresses us.
Thus, according to mainstream discourse, it would appear that the only plausible feminist course of action is to say (and do)…. nothing at all.