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India’s plan for ‘women-only’ spaces welcomed, criticized

The Washington Post

In the months since a gruesome gang rape riveted India, a “women-only” culture has been on the rise, with Indians increasingly seeking out women-only buses, cabs, travel groups and hotel floors.

One city is preparing to open a women-only park. And in November, the government is launching a women-only bank that it hopes will empower women financially.

In a country where reported sexual violence is increasing — despite increased attention to the problem — many say the women-only spaces are a welcome refuge from lewd looks, groping and unwanted male attention. The concept appeals to women across a broad spectrum of society, including a 60-year-old named Sarita, who recently traveled to New Delhi from a village in Maharashtra by train and said she still had to squabble with male passengers who tried to sit next to her in the women’s coach. “It’s the ways of men,” Sarita said. “They’re not good. How can we co-exist?”

But critics argue that the trend toward separation threatens the gains that women have made in education and access to new career fields over the past two decades, as the economy has rapidly modernized. It is the men who need to change their behavior, they argue, not women.

“It’s appalling,” said Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “It’s a way for a patriarchal society to announce it’s not going to protect women. It’s simply going to segregate women and restrict their freedom instead of securing it.”

Some women-only spaces — in trains, on Delhi’s Metro system — already existed before December, when a 23-year-old physical therapy student was gang raped and injured so severely she later died. The country’s male-dominated culture is rooted in religious customs and societal norms that date back centuries, and the sexes were long kept separate in schools and temples.

But the Dec. 16 rape and subsequent death penalty sentences for the four attackers drew intense attention to the problem of sexual violence against women in India, where reports of rape have increased more than 25 percent in recent years.

Some women believe the harsh sentences will have little impact and feel the harassment problem is getting worse, forcing them to retreat.

After the gang rape, state governments across India scrambled to do something — anything — that would calm a public increasingly agitated about sexual violence. They installed help lines for crime victims, more street lighting, better surveillance cameras.

But it was the idea of creating more safe places for women that really caught the attention of bureaucrats. The city of Coimbatore, in the southern part of the country, announced plans to spruce up a decrepit park and limit it to women, who would also have access to a gym with a female fitness trainer. Localities from Assam to Odisha created women-only bus lines. The Tourism Ministry began pushing even small hotels to add female-only floors.

And the government announced plans for a $161 million banking system exclusively for women, the Bhartiya Mahila Bank, with a predominantly female staff and 25 branches across the country. It is set to be launched Nov. 19, the birthday of Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister and the country’s most revered female icon.

D.S. Malik, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry, said that the new bank is a “major step” toward correcting the gender inequity in credit and banking in India, where only 26 percent of women have a bank account, compared with 44 percent of men.

But some women’s scholars and advocates do not believe segregating the sexes is empowering, saying it could have a negative impact in the long run.

“The attempt is to shrink women into limited spaces,” said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. “It encourages segregation and more violence.”

  • B+ve

    Ladies-only coaches are required, no doubt. Having said that, the smile on one woman’s face in the picture and the fact that the woman only carriage is more than half-empty in a crowded platform are reason enough to believe that special facilities given to women in India should also come with making them accountable. Most of the times the ladies coach is not even half filled, while the other coaches are literally exploding with crowd, and women still board general compartments. This is just because there is no rule that tells them to first occupy ladies compartments before entering the general ones. And they say that openly, that it is not illegal to do so. They do that even when the train is empty, they do it even when there are vestibules that allow easy movements from one general compartment to “ladies-only” compartment. I have heard one lady giving reason that sometimes they travel with families and so need to be together, and she herself was travelling alone, in a general compartment. India is perhaps the largest democracy of parasites. The Govt. of India is, therefore, by definition: BY the parasites, OF the parasites and FOR the parasites.