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Can the Ladies' Express put women on track to equality?

March 1st, 2010
03:28 PM ET

Palwal, India - Faced with growing complaints of sexual harassment on its crowded commuter train network, India has launched a new women-only service - but when the Ladies' Special chugged out of the station last Saturday, it had two men on board.

Myself and a cameraman, Rajesh, were accompanying CNN's Mallika Kapur to report on the twice-a-day shuttle carrying female workers to New Delhi from Palwal, a small town in a neighboring state.

For eyes accustomed to seeing passengers hanging out of the country's notoriously overcrowded short-distance trains, this service appeared odd at first.

I hardly saw any woman getting into it at least until 20 minutes before its scheduled departure from Palwal - a state of affairs that drew dismissive comments from men taking a train on an adjacent track.

"There isn't a significant number of passengers on the Ladies' Special. Still, it gets priority in departures and arrivals while other trains suffer delays," said Kishan Singh, a 61-year-old man heading for his printing press in New Delhi. "It should be made a general train with a couple of coaches reserved for women."

Another male traveler, Mukesh Sharma, had the same opinion. "This Ladies' Special is of no use. It's wastage of resources," he said.

Initially, we had feared that reporting on the Ladies' Special on a Saturday was a mistake, a government holiday in India, but then I saw other trains leaving Palwal - packed like sardines.

Jumping on to the bright blue and yellow striped train, we showed a copy of our official permission to the guards before passing into the carriages through rows of cushioned seats with steel luggage racks overhead.

Pink and red powder was strewn on the aisle, a sign passengers had celebrated an upcoming the Hindu festival of colors –- Holi - on board a day ago.

There were now more than two dozen women on board, some having breakfast and some reading from their pocket prayer books.

As the Ladies' Special rolled out of Palwal, I introduced myself to a group of rural passengers chatting together. Their eyes blazed with excitement. One of them began singing a Holi song. Others clapped along and joined in the chorus.

By the time, Rajesh and Mallika arrived at their seats, they were swaying in time to the music.

Rattling through one station after another, the Ladies' Special began filling with passengers. It was now a glimpse of India's womenfolk –- rural and urban, conventional and modern –- under one mobile roof.

For many passengers in their early 20s, the train was a comfortable place to put their face make-up on or comb their hair without attracting leers.

"No doubt, this train has made our lives easier," said Shweta Saxena, a young woman on her way to her office in New Delhi. "We just don't have to face the trouble that we encountered earlier traveling on mixed trains and buses."

India is recording a rise in the incidence of male harassment towards women as the female workforce swells in Asia’s third largest economy.

Police across the country registered 185,312 cases of crimes against women in 2007 from 140,601 in 2003. More than 38,000 complaints were registered for molestation in 2007 alone, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

The country has enacted stringent laws aimed at safeguarding women from groping, catcalling, sexual assaults, workplace exploitation to murders of brides for dowry, a practice outlawed but prevalent in Indian families.

Nonetheless, women also hold some key seats of power in the South Asian nation. Indian president Pratibha Devisingh Patil is a woman; the country’s ruling Congress party is headed by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. India’s leader of opposition and speaker of the lower house of federal parliament are also women.

Sex-segregated transportation is not new in India. Women-only buses ran in select cities when government jobs were the most sought-after employment for both sexes much before the country unleashed economic reforms in the 1990s.

The trains are relatively new. Last year, authorities introduced the all-women service connecting Palwal and New Delhi modeled after a similar service in the country’s financial capital of Mumbai. Two other metro cities, Kolkata and Chennai, also got their own Ladies' Specials in 2009.

"Earlier, even if we were traveling in reserved compartments (for women), male passengers would barge in. But it is much safer now. Security is tight and no man dares to step into the Ladies' Special," said Teesha Sharma.

Four female and two male officers patrolled the train all through its route.

Railway inspectors were tough with travelers attempting a free ride. They fined at least two passengers about $5 each for not buying their two-cent tickets.

"If we see any man traveling in this train, we just catch hold of him and de-train him at the very next station," said Tayyab Hussain, a railway guard.

I saw guards declining entry to some men trying to board our Ladies' Special.

"You can travel on it with peace of mind," remarked Neha Dudeja with a smile as she prepared to get down at her destination.

What do you think? Are women-only trains a good idea? Are they needed in your community? Do they help or hinder the battle for sexual equality?

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Filed under:  General
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. David

    I see no need for all women trains but women only coaches would be fair to them. Plus it would give them more opportunities to travel safely.

    March 1, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  2. mike

    If the average man in your country can't stop acting like an animal, then you have much bigger problems than segregating trains. Such a thing is an indication of a society where women are seen as objects to be used and violently abused, instead of people who are equal partners in your daily life.

    March 1, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  3. Zac

    Women only trains is a bit much. I can understand women only coaches though. But it would only work in a place like India which we know will have them packed and used well. I really hesitate when i see women only things start to pop up. I worry that so-called 'postive-discrimation' will, understandably, cause a backlash. I can understand the frustration of those seeing women getting prioritry trains when they have to get to work.

    March 1, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  4. Lisa

    If you read the story, a woman did state that there were female only coaches, however the men STILL barged in.

    March 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  5. Aidan

    What a shame?? This is ridiculous....India will never solve this issue unless the people come together to acknowledge what's right and wrong thing...got to learn a more...still discrimination??

    March 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  6. CenterUS

    India has so many social problems. This is just one of them. This particular issue needs to be addressed at the root level. It is time to educate Indian men. They don't seem to tread women as equal and this is a democracy country too. Shame on Indian men!!

    March 1, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  7. whitesepulchre

    Hi,

    I can understand maybe why the women like the train. As was mentioned in the article, women's only coaches were ignored by men, on what sounds like a somewhat frequent basis. So, this idea thrown out by some commentators seems to not work, hence the idea for an exclusive women's train.

    Perhaps it would have been better for them to try putting security in the women's coaches to maintain order before creating an entire train.

    I do not think that the women's train should receive special priorities over other trains concerning departure as this only causes frustration and maybe resentment among others, even if the women's train mainly serves as a way to work and come back. Everyone has to work and nobody wants to be late and get yelled at.

    I don't know if I would ride a women's only train. No such thing exists here in Germany (I'm an American though) nor do I feel harassed enough to want such a train here.

    However, that does not mean I haven't had to deal with harrasment on the train, hey – it's public transit so it's not you can choose who rides with you. I do not consider myself a feminist, I don't really feel like my rights are being violated somehow and most of my friends are men, but it can be VERY scary when you have to deal with aggressive drunk men in the train. It really does happen that they touch you and grope you in ways that are completely inappropriate. Most of the time it isn't obvious where everyone can see. I have changed wagons and had drunk men follow me to keep up the harassment...and the train personnel saw. You could see them obvserving from the window of the wagon door, but not do anything like intervene or say anything. They did call the police and he was picked up at the end station, but it's really scary sometimes when some loose cannons get crazy ideas in their head.

    Most of the time there is no problem, and I really don't want to sound like I'm some crazy nut who thinks all men are scum, because I don't think that at all. However, men can't possibly understand what it feels like. Nobody comes up to you in public trying to touch or harass you or with derogatory sexual comments.

    I can see why men don't understand why the women might would feel the women's only train is a great idea, but men should also think that just because society has advanced a lot and most men treat us as equals.... not all do, and it can be scary to encounter such people.

    The men that say they don't understand the need for a train are to be commended as I feel these represent good decent men that would never entertain thought about harassing women, therefore they do not see the need for a separate train.

    However, keep in mind, we are not from India, there's a LOT of people there and from what I hear, they still have issues with treating women equally....if you're important or perhaps in a major city things could be different, but perhaps this kind of harassment is still prevalent in India whereas we from other nations maybe don't understand the depth of the problem. Who knows?

    Here in Germany, for heavy use commuter trains, they attach two trains together to accomodate the high volumes of people You cannot enter the other train, as there is no passageway, the trains are connected on the outside. Perhaps something like this whereby one is mixed use and the other is female only (actual separate trains, not some reserved coaches)....maybe with a guard or so. This would possibly eliminate the use of an exclusive women's train while still reserving a special women's place on regular trains. This way everyone could be happy. Mixed groups could enter the front train and the women that didn't want that could just enter the 2nd train.

    I wasn't trying to fan any flames here, just wanted to present a woman's view, and another possible solution to this.

    March 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  8. guest

    I say they should have a referendum

    March 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  9. Keith, La Rioja, Spain

    I agree – carriages with wagons only for ladies is a good idea – ¿but whole trains.......?
    In many "macho" societies, unfortunately, such measures are needed, especially as women take their rightful place in the workforce all around the world.
    So, ¿shall we see ladies only buses in Afghanistan?
    ¿Ladies only shops in Saudi Arabia?
    ¿Reserved for women taxis in Kenya?
    ¿Will we ever see special courts to protect young Indonesian or Pakistani girls employed in Abu Dhabi?
    ¿Or permission for women to drive cars in Riyadh?
    ¿Or to drink beer in Kuala Lumpur?
    I muchly fear this is not going to be the case..
    But I also fear the backlash from a masculine dominated society, which led to the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, for example.
    Women are superior beings to men: this is historical: but the Taliban and other "Islamic" societies cannot accept this.

    March 1, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  10. Francois

    Gender-segregated transportation would bring us back several centuries. Women – whether indians or others – must fight their way into equality. If a woman gets harassed in a bus or train she must learn to kick the guilty guy in the balls. One deserves what one fights for, not what one is given by society.

    March 1, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  11. Mike - Japan

    I think it is a good idea but not a whole train, like it has been suggested a few coaches I think would be fine. They actually do this in Japan durning RUSH hours before and after work because of the same reasons as india.

    March 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  12. Vendo Thefastlane

    mike: It isn't that the average man is acting like an animal, but if hundreds or maybe thousands are on a train and it is very cramped, surely at least a few (even 0.1% and not close to "average") will be abusive towards women, just as in any society including your own. The train allows piece of mind against this very small element of society.

    March 1, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  13. Dorothy Eleanor Gonzales

    Segregation by coaches worked well here in Manila, Philippines. Women and children with elderly (both female and male) in a separate coach from men. This was implemented due to the fact that there are really many passengers especially during rush hours and to add to that, the coaches are not big enough for the bulk of passengers. At first, it was difficult for the officers to implement it but due to its consistent implementation, the passengers were able to adjust and were convinced of the policy. Now, women are more comfortable even if sometimes it's already jam packed. They are not worried any more of harassment (intentional or unintentional).

    March 2, 2010 at 12:52 am | Reply
  14. Jayle

    Did anyone actually read the part of the article where it mentioned that men barged into women-only carriages? Just wondering.

    Oh, and before the jingoism goes too far, there is a reason why the boorish construction worker is a north american stereotype.

    March 2, 2010 at 1:22 am | Reply
  15. Allan

    I agree with Mike. It's a bandaid solution to a much bigger socio-economic problem. Women in India, and many other countries in the world, require equality in a broader stage than transportation.

    Equal access to health, education, credit, the right to enter into contracts, the right to own property, the right to divorce (without spousal approval), etc...

    Making the objectification of women unacceptable within a culture will take generations, much like India's now illegal, but still rampany caste-system. But it remains the only true way to acheive gender equality!

    March 2, 2010 at 1:29 am | Reply
  16. Tai

    in Japan, they have "women only cars" usually at one end of the train... These cars are usually only in effect during rush hour(s) (morning and evening).

    March 2, 2010 at 2:26 am | Reply
  17. Stefan Rohner

    I am currently living in Rio de Janeiro. Born in Switzerland and having become a full member of the grown-up male society in New York City, I can understand women's concerns very well. I do not know India personally, but here in Brazil they have found as usual a nice compromise. A woman's only carriage in the middle of the train. Can we live with that boys? Come on. Let the girls have some privacy. We are but after all decedents of monkeys.

    March 2, 2010 at 2:33 am | Reply
  18. Jack

    It's an absurd idea that flies in the face of the very concept of women's equality. 'Equal and separate' is an oxymoron, as well as moronic. And I am surprised tnat many women don't recognize the inherent contradiction in this proposal. Or is this a case of wanting it both ways?

    March 2, 2010 at 2:52 am | Reply
  19. laura

    My female friends and I have been harassed in public trains and busses from Istanbul to South Korea. I think women-only trains is a fine and fantastic idea. And no, it doesn't matter what we wear or whether or not we are speaking. Just the presence of women seems to make some men think they can behave however they like.

    March 2, 2010 at 3:01 am | Reply
  20. Ian

    I live in Japan and there are many women-only coaches here. I have never seen any negatives come from this idea. However, the women-only train does seem to be a bit much.

    March 2, 2010 at 3:07 am | Reply
  21. Ashley

    As a woman, the thought of being packed on a train around men who might try to grope me or make snide or sexual remarks is horrifying. These actions toward women are demoralizing, and the victims often feel powerless to stop it. Women-only trains is a great way for them to avoid the situation all together. If women-only carriages were better protected and prevented men from barging in, then they too should be used. These are good measures to take for the security of the women (physically, mentally, and emotionally) until the men learn how to control themselves.

    March 2, 2010 at 3:13 am | Reply
  22. Lad Spit

    Yeah the fact is they are hiding the real issue. COACHES. We need more coaches for sure. all types of ones.

    March 2, 2010 at 3:33 am | Reply
  23. vizi

    its a good idea . It should work and at least benefit ladies .

    March 2, 2010 at 3:34 am | Reply
  24. angelarnold

    Of course the only comments left were by men so far....men who think that this is a waste of resouces and a bad idea. Now...don't get me wrong...if this works in India and makes the ladies feel safer then I am ALL for it, I am not saying that I would want this...I am a happily married (for the past 20 yrs) 41 yr old woman and if I am on my way to work and there is a nice looking man smiling at me...I am going to smile back and will probably blush...I am not going to say I need a womens only bus/coach/rrain. Now if there is a man standing there making me feel like a little worm on a big friggin hook and is there day aftrer day and other women are having similiar issues with the men there and that is our only mode of transportation then bring on the women only trains...LOL

    March 2, 2010 at 4:01 am | Reply
  25. Shalini

    I once took a train in India that had a 'women's compartment' within a car. It was with a door that locked from the inside. I was traveling with my father, and was 15 years old. I went to sleep in the compartment, alone. I woke up in the morning, to find that there were 5 men sleeping in there. THANK GOD, that absolutely nothing happened, but can you imagine a 15 year old girl locked inside a compartment with 5 men? And this was the first class car. It's a lot worse on the other cars, and its even worse in the buses – sexual harassment is unfortunately a way of life in India, and I have no idea why, but if female only compartments aren't even the answer, then it might be best to have female only trains/buses/cars.

    March 2, 2010 at 4:03 am | Reply
  26. adilson

    yes .its a good idea

    March 2, 2010 at 4:41 am | Reply
  27. uzair

    to mike....

    in western countries, women are not treated any differently., where their naked bodies are used to sell products, movies and make money

    March 2, 2010 at 4:43 am | Reply
  28. Wendy

    I would ride one! What a great concept and neat idea...especially since it was instituted to address legitimate concerns and wasn't just slapped in place due to someone's whim.

    March 2, 2010 at 5:24 am | Reply
  29. tm

    It is not so much that the women are harrassed any more in India...on the train....it is a matter of overcrowding in general. That is what causes the problems. All they need to do is limit the number of people allowed on any train.

    When you see the trains where people are hanging out the windows and sitting on the roof, it is because of lack of toatal seats. The men and the women have to crowd together and this causes the problem. Crowded conditions also provide cover for the likel;y few creeps that take advantage.

    March 2, 2010 at 5:55 am | Reply
  30. JoAnn

    As a Caucasion woman living in Egypt ~ a country where men will "rape you with their eyes" as you walk down the street ~ the women only cars here serve as a brief breather from the constant harassment. I agree that people in the western world might see red flags when "women only" things happen ... but to afford a woman a few minutes of peace is the right thing to do in these 3rd world countries. The reason that the men don't like it is because they do not EVER view women as equals and how dare they get anything special. Also – keep in mind that many of these cultures already have a segregated structure for almost everything! Here in Egypt – woman only mosque time, in the churches – men and women have their own sides, a man will hardly EVER be seen doing the shopping or taking care of the kids, women are seen as weak and not very smart. Even certain coffee shops and stores will only hire men!

    March 2, 2010 at 6:11 am | Reply
  31. iyeping

    How about Ladies' Special with a few coaches reserved for men?

    March 2, 2010 at 6:13 am | Reply
  32. Jordan

    Well, if the men had just kept their hands to themselves, there wouln't have been a need to establish women-only trains. "Earlier, even if we were traveling in reserved compartments (for women), male passengers would barge in" Obviously, the women-only coaches didn't work out either. The men brought this upon themselves so they shouldn't be complaining. They probably just miss the good old days of being able to feel someone up on their way to work...

    March 2, 2010 at 6:20 am | Reply
  33. hideaki nagano

    I think sacred,simple precedence grammar,sympathy,symposium,sword is equality

    March 2, 2010 at 6:28 am | Reply
  34. Elaine

    Nice to see that all these men so no need for a ladies only train. Obviously women only coaches do not work because it is quoted in the article that men barge into them. If the men of India can't keep their hands to themselves, then they need the hassle connected with taking a separate train.

    March 2, 2010 at 6:35 am | Reply
  35. Wex

    I think it is a good idea for such a country. Gradually when the idea is excepted, then it can be watered down to women only coaches. Sometimes, we need to stop comparing our society with others and imagine ourselves in that different setting...maybe just maybe....we can then understand why they are doing what they are doing.

    March 2, 2010 at 8:20 am | Reply
  36. dambi

    I don't think people understand how agressive and aggravating men can be – especially in group situations that encourage bad behavior. You are talking about a country that frequntly turns a blind eye when women are attacked with acid for turning down a suitor. I think women only trains are a good idea – if only to allow these women some peace of mind as they work to provide for their families. I agree with Mike – it is an indication of a bigger problem – now how do we change the mindset of the male majority who think that that kind of behaviour is ok?

    March 2, 2010 at 8:55 am | Reply
  37. Ravi Metta

    Dont understand why America's CNN is intrestred in India's Train system....? dosent make anny sense does it?

    March 2, 2010 at 8:56 am | Reply
  38. Rajan

    This is not US where we can get protection for some misbehavior. Its been traumatic for lot of girls esp. good looking ones to commute in such loaded trains without such protection.

    Having lived around the world this is necessity in india

    March 2, 2010 at 9:32 am | Reply
  39. suneel vats

    no need to run ladies special train in this route if govt want to run ladies special they should try it only delhi local .because this train goes empty daily there are no passengers thats why its no neet to run

    March 2, 2010 at 11:11 am | Reply
  40. bizarreum

    This whole train thing sounds bizarre. It' further verifies inequalities towards women and of course Segregation. India too has a long way to go in reality.

    March 2, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  41. Anish

    Great idea. Having lived in India, I know how beneficial this is for commuting women. Great job by the Indian Railways (the largest employer in the world, and the largest railway network in the world) to do their bit in helping the country develop.
    News worthy too!

    March 3, 2010 at 6:16 am | Reply
  42. Sarah McConnell

    The female generation in the U.S. today has set women back 25 years....the females today think they are "smart" and "empowered" but have no doubt – the males in this country are laughing AND laughing at those of us who worked with our clothes on – to show we could break the glass ceilings...we have females today to thank for making fools of us. It is no different in any country – males in the United States may act a bit differently – but they are thinking the same but don't voice it straight out. This reality world is disgusting and take note females – it's setting us back – and you have put us in a position where we are one step above Burkas ourselves. It's sad and disgraceful. Good for India – back the perverts off. Equality for women in the United States only happens if you "marry rich" or are born into a powerful family – then you stand somewhat of a chance in breaking barriers. Working hard as a lower class or middle class female and doing it the right way – rarely works – who are any of us fooling. And now, it's beyond repair, thanks to a new generation of women who shame us. Women ruin women in America.

    March 5, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  43. Thinky

    Hopefully, this will help the untouchable caste of women to travel freely with other women and will not be discriminated.

    March 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  44. Trishna

    It is well known, unfortunately, that sexual harassement of women is a way of life in India. So this train will be a great escape for Indian women during their travel or commute.

    March 8, 2010 at 5:22 am | Reply
  45. John

    Those who have traveled in a local train in India will only understand the rush in peak hours. Its 20times more than in Europe or US. So women who are traveling faces many difficulties as there are not as tall and strong as men to stand in the heavy rush. And the population of India is 1.1 billion and the population in a big city is as big as the population of an entire country in Europe. So if we calculate the ratio if there is 1 drunk men in a city in Germany there will be 1000 drunk men in a city in India. So the crime rate will be also high. So it doesn't mean that all women is treated badly and all men in India is bad there are some bad incidents happening in India as it happens every where in the world. And the culture and tradition of India is much different from the other parts of the world. So introducing a women only train is not any kind of sexual discrimination, Its a means to ease the every day life of women in India. And there is no men only train in India so if any women finds its not good they are free to travel in other trains with men.

    November 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  46. Joe Atyahoo

    I seem to recall some of my women friends claiming "There would be no war and violence in the world if women ran the world". Wow.

    November 28, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Reply

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