On India's Trains, Seeking Safety In The Women's Compartment

Mar 28, 2013
Originally published on March 28, 2013 8:26 pm

Headlines in India's national newspapers tell the story of the state of women in the country. A sampling of what readers in New Delhi encounter makes for sober reading:

"Woman Alleges Gang Rape In Lawyer's Chamber."

"More Shame: Five Rapes In Two Days."

"Woman Resists Molestation, Shot Dead."

India's media have been zealous about exposing the pervasive sexual violence in the country since the gruesome gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman in December ignited an international outcry.

Mass anger at home galvanized the Indian public to demand better policing, swifter justice and safer streets in the Indian capital. Parliament last week approved a new sexual assault law that strengthens penalties for rape and for the first time makes offenses such as stalking and acid attacks a crime.

Still, navigating New Delhi can be treacherous for women. Taxis are expensive, and public transportation can be unreliable, overcrowded and unsafe.

All of this helps explain the popularity of the women-only compartment on New Delhi's metro system.

Providing Security

For female passengers worried about safety, a separate carriage for women eases the mind, says lawyer Saloni Chowdhry, who climbs aboard twice a day.

"I prefer it from the general compartment because it's safer, less of Eve-teasing, so I prefer the ladies compartment any day," she says.

"Eve-teasing" is an Indian euphemism for the way men harass women, pass sexually charged remarks their way or intentionally brush up against them to make physical contact. It's everyday sexist abuse of India's everywoman, or "Eve" as the Biblical name denotes.

Saloni has been on the receiving end of sexual harassment on the subway.

"They want to feel you," she says uncomfortably. "It's a little sick. So for the past three years since the ladies compartment started, we are much safer now. You feel better, and even if it's a little crowded, there are all ladies around you and you feel more secure."

Other major cities, including Cairo, Tokyo, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro, all reserve subway cars for women to spare them from being groped or harassed. India's commercial capital Mumbai also provides sex-segregated cars for women's safety.

Pritpal Kaur, a radio jockey, says New Delhi's women-only compartment is a refuge especially at night, when she says men have leered at her and deployed Hindi slang that refers to women, delicately translated, as "hot stuff."

"Once or twice I slapped them back, but it does not work every time because sometimes I got reactions back," she says.

Over time, the general compartments have become the domain of men, who outnumber the women by 4 or 5 to 1. The ratio reflects what is happening more generally in Indian society. While women are increasingly enrolled in higher education, data from the Central Statistics Office show that just 12.8 percent of women in the urban sectors participated in the workforce in 2010, compared with 55.6 of men.

A Place For Gossip

When the ladies carriage fills, there is a dormlike camaraderie as young women survey fashion trends among fellow passengers and swap gossip.

"It's complete entertainment," says Sonal Sinha, who confides that she and her friends also eavesdrop on girls who are themselves gossiping about others. "That's the most fantastic thing" about the compartment, she says, eliciting laughter from her group.

Akanksha Gupta says women can get plenty pushy in the lone female carriage, but at least she can relax and not worry about men staring at her.

"When I'm in the ladies compartment I feel satisfaction," she says. "I mean, no matter if I sleep, I don't have to [rearrange] my clothes; I don't have to wear a scarf or anything. ... But when I'm in the general compartment, I have to be very careful."

A recent Times of India survey said 96 percent of women in Delhi feel unsafe after sunset. The sense of vulnerability is deepened by a steady stream of stories in the mass media about fathers raping daughters, uncles molesting nieces and headmasters preying on young schoolgirls.

Male and female perceptions of the problem can differ widely.

Rajesh Kumar travels in the general compartment with his female colleague Manisha Murli. He says out of 100 men, "perhaps two or three" engage in Eve-teasing or unwanted touching.

But Murli disagrees. "It's not that little," she protests, putting it around 50 or 60 percent of the men.

Entrenched Attitudes

Some religious and political leaders say the answer is to hide women away — to tell them not to go out after dark and to dress modestly.

Parinita Chaudhary, an 18-year-old science student, steps into the women-only carriage and says the prevailing attitude, especially among the older generations, is that she is asking for trouble if she doesn't avoid men and keep to herself.

"They think that girls initiate the problems — the clothing sense of the girls' initiates the problems," she says. "That's why the girls prefer that we should go into the ladies carriage and we avoid ... guys. It's not that they tell the male[s] to change their mind or tendency. They tell the girls and they blame the girls."

In the recent debate over the new sexual assault law, some male members of Parliament expressed utter incomprehension at terms such as "stalking" and "voyeurism."

"If a boy doesn't follow a girl," one said, "how can romance happen?"

Activist and author Kamla Bhasin says India's challenge is to work "on changing men, on changing their mindsets."

"I am fed up when each time we say women shouldn't do this, women shouldn't do that, women shouldn't leave the home," she says.

For every time they tell women not to do something, Bhasin says, they should tell men and boys "100 times" not to abuse or misbehave with women.

India fares very poorly when it comes to gender equality, according to a new U.N. report on human development. The report ranks India 132 out of 187 countries, and says with the exception of Afghanistan, all nations in South Asia were a better place for women than India.

Eighteen-year-old Chaudhary says her country must resolve the disconnect between the dazzling rise of modern India and its outmoded treatment of women.

"They say that India is developing, but the mind also has to be developed," she says. "It's not only the infrastructure that we should change. It's the mind that has to be changed."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

India's parliament has approved a new sexual assault legislation that strengthens penalties for rape, and makes stalking a crime. The law is a direct result of the clamor that followed the gruesome gang rape of a young, Delhi woman on a bus in December. She later died of her injuries, and that attack triggered public demands for better policing, swifter justice and safer streets.

From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report on a commuting option welcomed by many women there.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: For female passengers worried about their safety, New Delhi's metro system eases the mind.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Male passengers are requested not to sit on the seats reserved for ladies.

MCCARTHY: Welcome to the women's - only- compartment, where lawyer Saloni Chowdhry climbs aboard twice a day.

SALONI CHOWDHRY: I prefer it from the general compartment because it's more safer, less of eve teasing, so I prefer the ladies' compartment any day.

MCCARTHY: Eve-teasing is an Indian euphemism for how men harass women - pass sexually charged remarks their way, or brush up against them to make physical contact; everyday, sexist abuse of India's everywoman or Eve, as the Biblical name denotes.

Have you been harassed on the train before?

CHOWDHRY: Yes.

MCCARTHY: What's happened to you on the train? What do men do?

CHOWDHRY: Just being - little touchy, and at times when you have - it's a bad word, how they want to feel you. So for the last - oh, like, say three years since the ladies' compartment has started, I think we are much more - safer now. Yeah, you feel better, and even if it is little crowded, they're all ladies around you ,so you feel more secure.

MCCARTHY: Cairo, Tokyo, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro - all reserve subway cars for women, to spare them from being groped or harassed. Pritpal Kaur, a radio jockey, says New Delhi's single-sex compartment is a refuge; especially at night, when she says men have leered at her and deployed Hindi slang that refers to women, delicately translated, as hot stuff.

PRITPAL KAUR: Hot stuff, exactly.

MCCARTHY: And you hear them say that?

KAUR: Once or twice, I slapped them back, but it not works every time because sometimes, I got reactions back.

MCCARTHY: Anoo Bhuyan, NPR's local producer, criss-crosses the city on the subway, frequently jumping onto the general compartment rather than the women's out of convenience, and says that all she sees are men.

ANOO BHUYAN: And I'm looking to my left, my right, my - not on myself, and I cannot see another female head. Like, as far as I can see, I can only see men. And that's not because all the women are in the ladies' carriage. That's because there are just not enough women going to work, not enough women going to college; women sitting at home. So it's not because, you know, they're all packed into ladies' carriage - because the ladies' carriage is not always so crowded. It's just that they're not out there. They're not in the city.

MCCARTHY: When the ladies' carriage fills, there is a dormlike camaraderie as young women, like Sonal Sinha, survey fashion trends among fellow passengers and swap gossip.

SONAL SINHA: Sometimes you even hear gossiping two girls about others. Fantastic.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCARTHY: Akanksha Gupta says women can get plenty pushy in the lone female carriage. But at least there, she says, she can relax and not worry about men staring at say, her neckline.

AKANKSHA GUPTA: When I'm in the ladies' compartment, I feel satisfaction. I mean, no matter if I sleep, I don't have to wear a scarf or anything at all. But when I'm in the general compartment, you know, I have to be very careful.

MCCARTHY: A recent Times of India survey said 96 percent of women in Delhi feel unsafe after sunset. A glimpse at recent headlines provides reason enough. "Woman Alleges Gang Rape In Lawyer's Chamber," "More Shame: Five Rapes In Two Days," "Woman Resists Molestation, Shot Dead."

Men and women's perceptions of the problem can differ widely. Rajesh Kumar travels in the general compartment with his female colleague Manisha Murli. He says out of 100 men, perhaps two or three engage in eve teasing or unwanted touching. I ask Manisha: Do you think it's that little?

MANISHA MURLI: No. It's not that little. It's - we can say it's 50 or 60 percent.

MCCARTHY: Half of the men - half of the men.

MURLI: Half of the men.

MCCARTHY: That's a lot of men.

MURLI: Yeah.

MCCARTHY: Some religious and political leaders say the answer is to hide women away; not to go out after dark; dress modestly. Eighteen-year-old Parinita Chaudhary steps into the women-only carriage and says the prevailing attitude, especially among the older generations, is that she is asking for trouble if she doesn't avoid men and keep to herself.

PARINITA CHAUDHARY: It is what they think - that girls initiate the problem, the clothing sense of the girls initiate the problems; that - that's why the girls prefer that we should go in the ladies' carriage, and we should avoid all those guys. It's not that they tell the male to change their mind, or tendency. They tell the girls, and they blame the girls - that, you should avoid it.

MCCARTHY: In the recent debate over the new sexual assault law, male MPs portrayed utter incomprehension at terms such as stalking and voyeurism. If a boy doesn't follow a girl, one said, how can romance happen? The challenge for India, says activist and author Kamla Bhasin, is in changing men.

KAMLA BHASIN: On changing their mindsets. And I am fed up when - each time we say women shouldn't do this, women shouldn't do that. Each time they say women shouldn't do this, they should a hundred times say men and boys should not do this.

MCCARTHY: India's gender equality is among the worst in the world, according to a new U.N. report on human development, which ranks India behind Pakistan. Eighteen-year-old science student Parinita Chaudhary says her country must resolve the disconnect between the dazzling rise of the new India, and its outmoded treatment of women.

CHAUDHARY: They say that India is developing, but economically is not the things that has to be developed. The mind has also to be developed. It's not only the infrastructure that we should change. It's the mind that has to be changed.

MCCARTHY: How do you do that?

CHAUDHARY: I think very slowly. It will take a lot of time.

MCCARTHY: The emphasis, in India, has been on protecting women rather than giving women more freedoms - like the freedom to be safe, or the freedom from fear. The choice to sit among women on a train is a form of security. But the question arises: Can segregating the sexes be a long-term solution for what ails India? Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One Indian woman is setting her sights high, Mount Everest high, as she looks to overcome a traumatic injury. Two years ago, Arunima Sinha was a nationally ranked volleyball player when she was thrown from a moving train. The accident resulted in the amputation of her right leg.

WERTHEIMER: Her volleyball career was over, but she found inspiration in the story of a cricketer on India's national team. He came back to play after beating cancer.

GREENE: Sinha decided to move forward to achieve a lifelong dream, climbing Mount Everest. She trained with India's first woman to climb the mountain and she received advice from the world's only double amputee to summit Everest.

WERTHEIMER: The 26-year-old set out on her journey today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.