Women’s Rights, Cairo: ‘The New Back of the Bus?’, Aleks Deejay


The New Back of the Bus?


My first time waiting for a bustling metro in Cairo, I nearly unknowingly walked into a “women-only” section, a section located in various parts of the metro that is, as the name implies, for women only. After my flush faced returned back to its natural pasty whiteness, my immediate thought was confusion – not over what was occurring or why, but over my own stance on whether such a section was beneficial.

In a country that has long denied basic rights to women and suffers from rampant harassment problems it feels odd not immediately knowing where I stand on the partitioning of the middle of their metro into a female only section. The answer of where I should stand seems obvious enough, though it still needed some reasoning out. Are states recreating social segregation, and is it necessary?

If we look forward, the answer is a resounding “no”.

It may not exactly be fair to single out Cairo as they are not the only ones in the world who offer voluntary segregation on some of their public transportation systems. Metros in Tokyo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, and soon Seoul, [1] all have instituted female only sections on their metros. Fifteen countries in total have instituted some sort of “woman’s only” section in other public transportation, such as Guatemala’s pink buses. [2]

Each case is unique in its circumstances, given the various social factors and laws that surround the protection of women outside the transports. Cairo itself is no stranger to various other social gender segregations in public areas and transport.[3]

The reasoning behind the implementation of “women’s only” sections on metros and other public transport appears appropriate on the surface. 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.[4] Though such numbers are contentious, the epidemic problem of harassment in Egypt is evident to anyone who walks its streets, especially women, or anyone who tracks the reports on Harassmap.org.[5]

In the other cities listed, it is also rapidly becoming rampant. 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 in taking public transport in the past due to no longer depend on the males in the household for transport and become more active in the labor and education sectors. I imagine these were the thoughts of those who decided to implement these sections. These are certainly pluses and perhaps the reason why initial reactions by women towards these sections have been positive,[6] especially since this service is optional.

Of course, the usage of such sections are justified as “optional”, but in reality, once you institute them is there truly an “option” if the problem was so inimical it necessitated their employment in the first place? 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?

If we dig deeper and look further, however, many other questions arise. How much does segregation perpetuate the perception that women inherently need to be singled out, protected, and isolated? Does the creation of the divide in itself facilitate the idea, whether real or imagined, that one is necessary? As Muna Kahn astutely points out,[7] 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? Much of the justification behind gender transport segregation is inherently the same type of justification behind compulsory veiling, albeit in a “voluntary” disguise. The application of such sections seemingly only serves to mask the deeply engrained patriarchy far more than it actually benefits it. It is a band aid on a problem that’s got a severed artery.

This is the reason why this becomes problematic: The creation of a physical partition creates a long-term psychological one. Though the main goal here is to protect women from unwanted harassment, both sexual and nonsexual, which for the time being the institution of such sections accomplishes, how will long-term perceptions be altered? Muslim women, and in reality women everywhere, are already struggling immensely for their autonomy. When women step out into the open from the confines of a women-only metro or a bus, does this problem disappear?

Without the backing of greater punitive, grass-roots, and security measures, hasn’t it been made worse? With greater punitive and security measures that do not focus on creating a physical, and in turn psychological, gender divide, would such a measure even be necessary? This is a short-sighted solution that creates in turn a long-term problem, perpetuating a larger gulf within the social inclusions of women in the public sphere. The cities that have opted for this measure should take notice that other, more effective options exist in protecting women and curtailing patriarchy, many of which fall within the state’s legislative powers.

Admittedly, this is partly conjecture given the novelty of many of the transports, and further study is needed measuring the social and psychological effects of female only sections on public transport, how women’s opinions of the transport sections evolves over time, as well as the subsequent reforms that may or may not accompany them.

A more adequate solution to the problem would seemingly be to raise awareness through gender friendly grass-roots movements and civil society, anti-harassment campaigns, beefed up security on public transport systems, including investing in the instillation of camera systems in some instances, introducing gender egalitarian legislation, and taking 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 such as Cairo are just masking a much deeper, long-term one. Are Cairo and others slowly creating another “back of the bus”? ~ Aleks Deejay, 2011.

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