Do women-only transit options, like Uber For Women, reinforce harmful gender roles?

chariot for women logo

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.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • melissa

    well said. I was one of those people who thought women only trains might cause victim blaming and brushing the actual problem of preventing and holding accountable the men commiting the violence under the rug. you hear about gender neutral selective service and gender neutral dorms in the Norwegian military and how sexual assault has only been going down since, and you start to think segregating women probably isnt the best way forward.but you’re absolutely right. the whole reinforcing “stereotype” talk right now is just rubbish. its almost like we cant even acknoledge male violence anymore. I cant understand why they’re calling reality and real world misogyny a “stereoype” that’ll just go away if only people stopped addressing it.sometimes a bandaid is still better than an open wound.

    • Germaine

      There will always be victim blaming !
      “Women only trains” or not “women only trains” !

  • Tinfoil the Hat

    When men stop assaulting, harassing, emotionally abusing, “domestically” beating, raping, and killing us in epidemic numbers worldwide, I’ll fucking worry about women-only spaced “reinforcing gender roles.”

    I fucking hate men. There I said it. Hate. Them.

    • Melissa Cutler

      I second that.

      • Hierophant2

        I third it! Men *are* scum. That’s just a fact. Separatism is the best solution right now.

    • melissa

      same. this went from genuine concerns about women, to not trying hurt mens fragile feels. some dumb fuckers are dramatic enough to compare segregating white people from blacks in order to stay safe. as if blacks targeting and victimising whites for their skin is historic and universal truth the same way gendered victimisation is. fucking hate em too!

  • Lucia Lola

    This makes me think of Japan and their “female only” subways. Street harassment is barely acknowledged as a thing there, mostly because of the blame placed on the victims and the shame to go with. Groping is such a common enough action that they felt segregation was required. What does that tell you? Is it a kind of victim blaming to do so? I don’t know. I think so? Off the cuff, I say it does since to me, a more proactive and concerted effort to punish those who do these things should be the focus but at the same time, I feel strongly that safety is important. I guess more of the same little bit of this and little bit of that approach is warranted but of course, not pursued because the powers that be can’t be arsed to put real options and efforts into play to STOP male violence against women. Which is what this is all about, really. More focus on that, please (said generally, of course).

    Great topic.

    • lk

      So I’ve been doing a little bit of reading about different countries that have women-only transit. I guess I was pretty ignorant on the topic because I didn’t know that so many countries had this option.

      One of the articles I read was about separate trains in India and while the women said they felt considerably safer in these trains, they still felt that there needed to be more of a focus on changing the mindset of men.

      Like you, I think female safety is tantamount and women have every right to take the bus/train to work without dealing with any kind of sexual harassment and assault.

      What if we had additional security on public transportation? Cameras? Higher fines for sexual assault? What if we encouraged women to report sexual assault? Should we encourage women to fight back physically against these assaults? And boys absolutely need to be taught by their friends, family, teachers, coaches, mentors that it is never acceptable to sexually assault women.

  • lk

    “The feminist is said to create the very reality she decries merely by acknowledging it.”-So true and this is frustrating and ever-popular trend! I’ve noticed this more and more with people who attempt to point out systemic racism-they are told that by talking about it, they are creating racism. Yes, because not acknowledging a problem will absolutely make it disappear!!

  • Misanthropia

    Not acknowledging male violence as a reality will not make it go away. If, right now, women only public transport is making women feel safer then I think it should be done. Also what came came first male assault or female only safe spaces? We can’t be blamed for doing whatever we can to reduce the violence against us. This is not the type of sex segregation you see in some Muslim countries. This is an effort to avoid male violence.

  • Hierophant2

    But we can’t WAIT for the police to grow a conscience and do its job. They never will. That’s not their purpose as an institution.

  • Nunovit

    I am seriously considering becoming a driver for Chariot for Women when I finish University. I think it’s an excellent idea. It not only acknowledges the reality of the ridiculous amount of violence against women committed by males, but it should also appeal to the neoliberal feminists because it’s women using their agency to keep each other safe.

  • fragglerock

    I agree that it’s a band aid on the gaping wound that is sexism but somebody’s got to try and stop the bleeding while we work for a better solution.

  • Mellie

    No, it protects women and reminds people of male violence. Men need to change. In the mean time, women need to engage in self preservation.

  • Meghan Murphy

    What I know about feminism and the feminist movement is learned from my sisters. And yes, I am protective of the word/movement. Is there any reason I shouldn’t be, aside from your sexist presumption that women shouldn’t actually take a stand or believe they are right about anything?

    • Derek Aldred

      Everybody has a right to take a stand for what they believe in. And I didn’t presume that, it’s you who assumed that I did. But my question was different, which your answer didn’t clarify. Why deny the existence of liberal feminism? It’s a question that I am honestly curious about. Because most radical feminists I meet refuse to acknowledge that liberal women can be feminists too. And liberal feminists act the same way about radical feminists. And this feminist infighting gets in the way of larger feminist goals. Is being protective really more important than being inclusive?

      • Mac

        Bcs liberal feminism isn’t feminism. It’s misogyny masquerading as feminism. Liberal feminists are incapable of reaching feminist goals until they acknowledge that male violence is the problem. Material reality actually effects our lives… Narratives do not really do the damage.

        • linnet

          ^^^ this. Liberal feminism is too concerned with backing up the status quo and throwing some glitter on it and calling it feminism, and the cry that the radfems are oppressing them

      • genny

        Liberal feminists are not working towards the feminist goal of liberation. They advocate boner rights, not womens’ rights. They are female chauvanist pigs.

  • Delilah

    The world can focus on the source of violence: Men, and at the same time allow women only businesses like these. I for one would/will use them.

  • Mac

    I was just told that people accusing white people of racism was causing racism… Which didn’t really exist bcs we’re all equal now. Same regressive shit! Those in power always want to prevent the oppressed from speaking the truth. Keep speaking the truth! I would use a female only taxi and apply for a job at one.

  • John Stuart Mill

    Denver, Colorado, had a women and children only waiting room in their main transit station back forty years ago when I was traveling cross-country by bus. If male sexual violence hasn’t changed, then of course we need common-sense solutions to protect women NOW, not wait and hope that a different “narrative” will make male sexual violence go away. According to the FBI, 95% of rape victims are female and 98% of rapists are male. This is a huge problem NOW. We need sex-segregated facilities NOW to protect women and girls and keep male sexual predators at bay. if we can put screens on our windows to keep out mosquitos, or locks on our doors to keep out thieves while we’re out, then why not a few walls, windows, doors, etc. to keep male predators away from their preferred prey: women and girls. Why not?