A carriage of one’s own

Un vagón proprio (en español)


I was in Mexico City from March until June this year. Nearly every day I would use the metro to get wherever I was going: squeezed with hundreds of others through the turnstiles at the station onto the carriages that stop every few minutes to ferry punters from 5 am to midnight across 12 lines, 195 stations, and 226.5 kilometres of one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world.

Whilst Mexico City’s Sistema de Transporte Colectivo has many defining features for this public transport user (Lance Wyman’s early seventies typography and iconography; the Paseo de los Libros between Metros Pino Suarez and Zocalo; the Tunnel of Science at Metro La Raza; roving street sellers, orators, and musicians; the occasional dog or cat in a box), the most enduring one is the train carriages marked for women and children under 12 years old.

I’d never experienced women-only passenger cars before, though they are regularly proposed for Australian cities for the same purpose they have in Mexico, along with many other countries such as Israel, Japan, India, Egypt, Brazil and Malaysia – that is, to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and other violence against women occurring in public spaces by physically distancing men. Women-only sections on public transport are intended to keep us free from violent behaviours such as catcalls, groping, stalking, bashing and rape simply by segregating men.

As an embodied experience, this daily moment of separation re-routed some of the senses I had come to mobilise as a woman moving around the city alone (not to mention travelling alone as a woman from the other side of the world). When I crossed the line on the platform demarcating the space for women to wait, to get into the carriage marked for women only, I could feel my shoulders and my stomach relax ever so slightly. Here, I knew, there was a dramatically reduced chance of having to fend off questions about whether I was married or had a boyfriend or children or why I was travelling alone, of being whistled at or asked for my phone number or warned against the dangers of Mexico City (!) or simply talked at. Indeed, of any of the physical intrusions I had come to expect. This barely perceptible release is a move my body does not make on public transport in Sydney where I live. This is not because the behaviour of men in Sydney demands any less vigilance from a woman travelling alone in public. Whether or not I was safer from the incursion of men’s violence in a space marked out for women didn’t matter. The point was I felt safer, and the composition and composure of my body shifted under the sign of that safety.

The space was still often infringed upon by dudes. One morning when I was attempting to nap on the passage between Revolución and Tasqueña I was startled by a woman shouting. Turning my head to see, I realised the shouting was coming from a tiny woman about my grandmother’s age and directed at a young man who had tried to get on our carriage full of women. She was telling him to stick to the mixed carriages. The following day, the section on the platform was patrolled by a male policeman in full uniform, something I saw a few more times during the period I was using the metro as a way to enforce the separation, though I wished they’d leave it to the likes of my erstwhile abuela. Another time, I noticed the aggressive crossing out of ‘Damas’ (Ladies) with ‘Caballeros’ (Gentlemen) in texta on one of the platform signs. Then again, I also saw the separation observed more gently by some, such as the young man and woman on the platform at Metro Centro Medico, kissing and holding hands until the train arrived and they entered separate carriages, she through the door to the women’s section.

Violence against women was the subject of particularly visible feminist organising in Mexico City when I was in town, including the first national march against gendered violence on 24 April, which gathered steam via Twitter the day before through the hashtag #miprimeracoso (‘my first assault’), where thousands recounted their first memory of being sexually assaulted, which, like the best of Twitter solidarity hashtagging, turned a private trouble or abuse, into a publicly contestable category – that of men’s violence against women. In this vein, the march focussed on harassment on the street or on public transport, connecting it to the spectrum of violence against women perpetrated in the home, as well as Mexico’s long-standing crisis of feminicide.

As the scope of this activism suggests: in the face of such complex, entrenched hatred of women, which often has its worst manifestations in the private sphere, what can women-only spaces on public transport do, particularly if the boundary is not well enforced? How can these spaces hold safety for anyone outside the delimited carriage or the painted lines on the platform? Around the world, as The Guardian reported last year, there is mixed evidence at best that they’re really all that useful for preventing assault. Furthermore, we don’t know if these spaces are also transgender- or queer-friendly, or whether they’d be any better for women with disability. Nor do we know if they protect women from other kinds of violence, such as racial violence, or violence from other women.

Still, based on the bodily evidence of my Mexico City metro experience, I would welcome such an experiment with women-only space on public transport in Australian cities. If nothing else, these spaces offer a breather from the male gaze and from the threat of men’s violence for those of us going about our days being female in public. And that might just be worth it in whilst we work on transforming the culture of misogynistic violence overall.


Spanish translation by Elian Jane.

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Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine, PRI.org’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

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  1. Thanks for this description of the experience of using women-only transport. Very illuminating.
    I’d like to address the question of research in the area.
    Most of the mainstream media comment says the research is “mixed” and then links to another article saying the same thing. (The Guardian is very rarely reliable when it comes to quoting research on male violence). It isn’t “mixed” it’s more or less non-existent. The only major research is the 2015 Gekoski et al study on the steps taken in the UK to protect women on public transport,and it shows that we just don’t have enough evidence yet to know what prevention measures are useful.

    Most of the public media comment on public violence-prevention measures is ill-informed to say the least. There are always three strands in violence prevention: 1. Keeping victims of male violence safe 2. Making men accountable 3.Public awareness campaigns, including that of increasing knowledge in bystander prevention.

    Emphasising one, doesn’t mean neglecting the others. Everyday Sexism have argued that women-only transport doesn’t address the behaviours of perpetrators. That is true. But then, neither do women’s refuges, but we still need them.

    Male violence is endemic. Addressing it requires a massively comprehensive restructure of gender inequality, legal systems, male gender norms, policing, economics, etc. Part of the response might be women-only transport. We just don’t know. And we don’t know because facing up to the problem of male violence requires a gigantic cultural shift across area of life. The use of women-only carriages is at least acknowledgment that women are not even safe catching a train to work. And if you are not safe, in public, on a train, you are very likely to not be safe in a thousand other settings either as Ann’s post well demonstrates.

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