In Mexico City, 9 out of 10 women experience sexual violence on public transit each year.
My American family just arrived in Mexico City. It’s late February; COVID-19 is already a thing, but nobody’s “social distancing” yet. The three of us squish into a subway train, with our backpacks still on. I make sure my 5-year-old daughter is holding on tight to the pole, then offer smiles to the people around me. But, something’s weird… wrong.
The train is packed, but I’m surrounded by men.
Where are all the women? Where are all the kids?
As we’re streaming out of the train, I notice a sign, down at the end of the station.
“Did you see that?” I nudge my husband. “It says women and children only, right?”
“Vagones?” I can’t help but laugh. “Is that another word for women?” (It’s not.)
I hold my daughter’s hand tight and promise myself I’ll investigate the lady train next time.
Recently, after growing feminist pressure, the government of Mexico City announced big changes intended to promote women’s safety and equality, including strengthening exclusive transit spaces for women and children.
Over the past 50 years, the city slowly added to the women-only options: greater hours of operation, women-exclusive buses, and more Metro lines.
Yes, gender segregation in Mexico City’s transit system isn’t new, but a few months ago, the city began a greater commitment to the system and coupled it with a multi-tiered campaign to stop gender-based violence against women, including education at all levels about what gender-based violence looks like.
According to research by Amy Dunckel-Graglia in her paper, “Women-Only Transportation: How ‘Pink’ Public Transportation Changes Public Perception of Women’s Mobility,” most women in Mexico City opt to take women-only transit every time they can. Meanwhile, most men have no idea why, as they don’t think a women-only option is even necessary.
“Despite the staggering reports of rape, violence, and harassment towards women where 100% of the violations are reported to be men violating women,” writes Dunckel-Graglia, “men tended to view public transportation as a dangerous place in general and not a dangerous place for women.”
Men almost exclusively blamed women for their safety concerns and said women’s complaints were a sign of their weakness. Meanwhile, 77% of women told Dunckel-Graglia “pink” transportation would not need to exist if men were educated to respect women.
That education is finally here.
I remind my husband which station we’re getting off at, then we kiss goodbye. We’re all taking the Metro to the vegan cat cafe, but my daughter and I are going to ride in the women-only section at the front of the train, and my husband isn’t allowed there.
“We’re going to a part of the train where only women and kids are allowed,” I tell my daughter. “What do you think of that?”
“I don’t know. Sounds cool.”
“Do you want to know why it’s just for women and kids?”
“Okay, well, we’re just gonna check it out.”
The train comes, and after giggling at the abundance of yogurt ads, I notice a statistic that shakes me.
I read it again, translating in my head. It doesn’t say 9 out of 10 women have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. It specifies in public transit, and in the last year.
“9 out of 10 women have been victims of sexual violence in public transit during the last year.”
I quit staring at the sign so my daughter won’t ask me what it says.
In August last year, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo announced an Immediate Action Plan of Attention to Violence Against Women, outlining the actions the city’s government would take during September through December 2019 to make the city safer for women and children.
These actions included the #ParemosLaViolencia (Stop the Violence) campaign. Metro platform floors got new, clear signage: pink signs informing riders the front trains are for women and children only, at all hours, every day.
The Paremos La Violencia campaign also includes #DateCuenta: messaging via radio, TV, and social media — as well as posters in all the transit stations and trains — labeling various forms of harassment as violence.
“The campaign aims to show that there are many things that are violence towards women, that are behaviors in most men towards women, that make us feel insecure in the city,” said Sheinbaum (translated from Spanish). “The objective of this campaign is to make visible and that we take actions, not only from the Government, from the Attorney General’s Office, but also as inhabitants of Mexico City, because it is finally everyone’s home.”
The #DateCuenta campaign also includes messaging that when women experience violence, it’s not our fault. Video tweets, like this one from Sheinbaum, encourage us to speak up about our experiences.
Women certainly don’t have to ride in the women-only section. One time, the train arrives quickly, so we all just jump in together.
Squished into the unsegregated train, I keep my daughter on my lap and try to figure out how exactly to act normal with my standing husband’s crotch in my face.
When others enter the packed train, my husband leans further into me to let them pass behind him. I make a point of smiling and talking to him, so other riders will know he isn’t assaulting me.
“If I didn’t know you, this would really not be okay with me right now,” I say, forcing a smile. But the truth is, partner or not, I feel really uncomfortable right now. I can’t wait for this ride to end.
Riding with my husband feels like riding with a bodyguard, like he’s keeping his body pressed to me so another man won’t do the same. But in the women’s train, I don’t need a bodyguard. In the women’s section, my experience doesn’t revolve around what men are doing, or what men might do. In the women’s section, I can just relax and get where I need to go.
Mexico City was the first city to introduce gender segregation in their subway system, but other cities have followed their example, including (but definitely not limited to) Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Tokyo, Cairo, and Mumbai.
When leaders in Britain proposed combating sexual assault by adding women-only transit, they faced massive backlash. In the Telegraph, editor Claire Cohen called the idea “deeply worrying, with echoes of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ dystopia.”
“Women-only carriages are an admission of defeat,” she wrote. “They normalise sexual assault and tell the world that, rather than tackling sex offenders, the answer is to simply remove women from the equation — as if it is somehow our fault.”
Before experiencing Mexico City’s segregated transit system, her argument may have convinced me. When I first saw the signs for the women’s section, I wondered how— or if — I was going to defend transit segregation to my daughter, who knows well the story of Rosa Parks. Segregation is injustice, right? And when we see it, it’s our job to speak up for those who are excluded.
Internally, I questioned why the other trains were supposed to be good enough for my husband but not for me and my daughter. And I wondered how a binary rule could account for the reality of the gender spectrum.
But then I rode the trains. From the safety of a man-free space, I read the statistics on the walls, and I let out a sigh I didn’t even know I was holding.
All around me was the honest acknowledgment of a huge shameful problem: gender-based sexual assault. I was surrounded by messages proclaiming, finally, the shame was not women’s to hold, that it never should’ve been in the first place.
This train was an apology, and a way forward. It proclaimed the right to be safe — my right, my daughter’s right, the rights of everyone around me — was important enough to try something radical. It was the riot grrrl slogan, “Girls to the front!” made real; and it told me, “You matter.”
I felt the same way I do every time I’m in an airport bathroom and see the flier about human trafficking: full of hope. Like, this is going to let someone know they’re not alone. This is going to save someone.
So what’s the exit strategy? Can we even imagine an education so encompassing, an equality so grand, that the Metro system will be re-integrated?
One promising campaign in Mexico City’s Immediate Action Plan of Attention to Violence Against Women is the high school curriculum #NoEsCostumbreEsViolencia (“It’s not custom, it’s violence”). The program aims to raise awareness among minors about the many forms of violence against women, in both public spaces and homes.
Hopefully, the coordination of government-supplied feminist education in the schools, social media, television, and in the widely used transit system will result in a massive cultural change that stops the flood of violence against women.
But in the meantime, women need safer options. This struggle is a matter of life and death: About 10 women are killed each day in Mexico. Femicides — murders of women because of their gender — more than doubled over the last five years.
The statistics are staggering, but the feminist movement in Mexico is strong. On March 8, International Women’s Day, 80,000 women marched in the streets of Mexico City, demanding an end to violence against women. The following day, tens of thousands of Mexican women took part in a nationwide women’s strike.
In Dunckel-Graglia’s transit study, only 16% of women transit users said they felt safe in normal transportation. She writes, “In general, women believe that until the machismo culture changes, the city must provide women with a safe travel alternative.”
Yes, the problem of patriarchy will not be solved by women-only transit. Subway segregation is a symptom-reliever, not a cure. But Mexico City’s ambitious, feminist plan proves we can provide safe spaces for women right now, while also using education to try to create a society where we’ll no longer need them.
Mexico City’s comprehensive transit system gets us everywhere we want to go. Over 11 days in February, we ride the Metro trains and buses over 40 times. Each time we squeeze through the turnstiles, I ask my daughter, “Should we all ride together, or do you want to head to the women-only area?” And every single time she chooses to pass the barrier with me to the women’s platform.
On the train, my daughter holds on tight to the pole and learns to navigate by counting stations on the subway map.
The blue-haired millenial to my left tries to give up her seat, but my daughter refuses. “I’ve never seen a girl who wants to stand,” the woman whispers to me.
The woman to my right gazes into her phone, applying mascara. The elderly woman facing me has her hands full with plastic bags from the mercado. I smile at a woman nursing her baby, uncovered.
I internally question if it’s okay to assume they’re all women; I teach my daughter we don’t know someone’s gender unless we ask. But this is the women’s section, after all.
I watch someone give up their seat to a very old person with a thick beard and a pink V-neck tee. Transit police patrol every station, but I never once saw them — or any passengers — try to police anyone’s gender. If a person feels the section is right for them, it appears others generally respect that.
“What do you like about riding in this part of the train?” I ask my daughter.
“I like that it’s just women.”
Last year, I went to a women-only spa, and when my daughter found out, she was distraught. “It’s not fair unless everyone’s allowed!” she told me, echoing what I’d taught her about equality.
I feel so thankful for Mexico City’s women-only transit, but I do still worry I’m teaching my daughter the wrong lesson, by embracing segregation in any form. “Why do you think there’s a part of the train men can’t go in?” I ask her.
“Oh, I know exactly why men can’t go in this part.” She’s looking me right in the eyes. “It’s because some men are really mean to women.”
I didn’t expect her clear response. Yes, I talk to my 5-year-old about the patriarchy, but always with an obligatory caveat of NotAllMen. I don’t want her to hate or fear her nurturing dad or her many male playmates. I don’t want her to assume the worst about anyone. But she’s right: some men are really mean to women.
“Yes. Some women didn’t feel safe because some men were mean, so this is an option to help women to be and feel safer.”
I hope it’s not forever. I hope feminist activism and education campaigns like #DateCuenta and #NoEsCostumbreEsViolencia lead to a world that’s universally safe for women. I hope someday sexual harassment and assault become so rare that there’s no need for women-only spaces. I hope someday we’ll say goodbye to segregation of all kinds.
But we’re not there yet. So for now, Mexico City’s solution might be the best we’ve got.