Why Women-Only Transportation Isn’t The Answer

By Elena Zhang

It’s three in the morning, and you wait alone on a darkened street corner. A car pulls up. You get in. The driver, a man, leers at you, and you’re afraid. You wish you could trust that this stranger will get you home safely, but you just can’t be sure.

This is the kind of scenario that prompted Michael Pelletz to create SafeHer, a ridesharing service in Boston “driven by women, exclusively for women.” Through his own experiences as an Uber driver, Pelletz became aware of the potential dangers both drivers and passengers face when using current ridesharing services, and realized that even his own wife was wary of using Uber out of concern for her safety.

Indeed, there have been far too many examples of women being harassed when using a ridesharing service, with Buzzfeed reporting that as many as 170 sexual assault complaints were filed with Uber between December 2012 and August 2015.

Pelletz’s vision for SafeHer, which launched in April, is to be an alternative to Uber and Lyft, placing the safety of women and children as the company’s number one priority.

SafeHer isn’t the only transportation service that’s shifting toward a “women-only” mentality. In New York, a cab service called SheTaxis offers female drivers for women who aren’t comfortable being driven by men. And in 2010, Delhi introduced a women-only car in their metro rail system, after numerous complaints of sexual harassment. India joins the list of countries that employ a separate train car for women, including Germany, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and Egypt.

It all sounds appealing, doesn’t it? A guarantee of safety for women in a world where sexual harassment is all too common — what’s not to like?

But this trend toward women-only services is far more harmful than meets the eye. Although it may seem like a great idea, separating women from men is not the solution to our society’s misogyny problem. In fact, it’s almost counterproductive to the feminist movement, a movement that cannot afford to take shortcuts in order to gain the equality and public safety that women so rightfully deserve.

If we want things to get better for women, we need society to change as a whole. And that can’t happen when women are removed from the equation.

It’s likely that this trend will gain all the more traction because of how appealing it is to men. When describing his inspiration for creating the company (which he credits partly to the movie Pretty Woman), Pelletz told the Washington Post, “I was made to take care of women, to love them, respect them. . . . I was meant to do this.” Perhaps he failed to realize just how paternalistic that sounds. Is it a man’s job to shelter women? No. It’s a man’s job not to harass and assault them. We don’t need men to take care of us, as if we were helpless children.

The SafeHer logo (Credit: Facebook)

More than the ego stroke it will provide them, men may embrace services like SafeHer because they will be absolved of the responsibility to change. Instead, it will become the woman’s responsibility to not get assaulted by using her designated service. Men won’t need to confront their internal misogyny and privilege, because women will simply be taken out of the picture. Out of sight, out of mind, right? It’s a trend that signals an admission of defeat, an acceptance of the fact that women will forever and always feel unsafe around men.

It’s true that it may be the reality now, and it may be the reality going forward for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. More importantly, it must change.

That said, many women have come out in favor of these services. Over a thousand women have already signed up to be drivers for SafeHer, and many women have spoken out about their preference for the popular women-only trains cars in Delhi. Hell, even I would be tempted to use a ridesharing service like SafeHer if it ever came to my city. I would love to be able to travel without the constant fear and anxiety that accompanies the simple fact of being a woman in public.

But I can’t forget that this is merely a short-term solution, a cop-out that doesn’t address the problems society needs to tackle. An advocate of Delhi’s women-only train car describes the compartment as a “good way for us to assert our right to public spaces,” at least until men start behaving better. But how is being hidden away in a separate compartment an assertion of our right to public spaces? And what will motivate men to start behaving better toward women if interaction is removed?

I fear that if these services become popular enough, the trend will proliferate and seep into every facet of public life. And that would be a huge step backwards in terms of societal progress.

There is actually historical precedent for gender segregation in our country. According to University of Utah law professor Terry S. Kogan, gender segregation started to take hold in America in the late 1800s as women began to increase their presence in the workforce. Society responded to the proliferation of women in public life by creating separate spaces for them, including separate train cars, entrances to facilities, reading rooms in libraries, and yes, separate bathrooms. This gendered division of life was created with the idea of protecting women from harm as they interacted more and more with men outside of the home. But the notion of safety has often been used as a pretense to oppress women and keep them from disrupting the “normal” male public sphere.

Most of the antiquated policies of gender segregation have been dismantled as the idea of women in public has become normalized. Dismissing these policies was a crucial step in the feminist movement, because the idea of women as outsiders was no longer codified in society.

Reverting back to separate safe spaces would undo the progress we’ve already made. We would be essentially throwing our hands up in the air, declaring the experiment of allowing women to comingle with men as a failure, and regress to a divided society once more.

So what can be done? If not this temporary solution, then what?

SafeHer actually has a number of great ideas that will better ensure the safety of ridesharing passengers, which can be adopted by current ridesharing companies. For example, drivers will go through rigorous hiring requirements, including fingerprinting and background checks, and will have to confirm their identity every day by answering security questions. Drivers and passengers will also be given a “safe word” through the SafeHer app, a word that drivers must confirm with the passenger before the ride begins. This kind of security would be able to prevent incidents where perpetrators pretend to be your ridesharing driver, like in the case of the man who pretended to be an Uber driver and assaulted a woman in Los Angeles.

More of these creative ideas will go a long way to improve safety not just for women, but for all who use ridesharing services (seeing as how men were also victims of theft and assault). But these measure don’t have to be implemented in a women-only bubble — they should be embraced as industry-wide practices, and companies like Uber and Lyft can, and should, adopt these safer policies right now.

As far as other public transportation services go, they can start by creating educational campaigns to increase awareness about the sexual harassment women face every day. Chicago’s public transit (CTA) launched such a campaign in 2015, putting up posters in the commuting trains and buses that encourage victims and witnesses to speak up and report incidences. The CTA has the right idea, focusing on changing the public perception of sexual harassment, instead of merely trying to eliminate the symptom.

And countries like India should be working toward passing laws that protect women’s safety and enforce punishment of male aggressors. Although India has been making progress recently, there is still a social stigma attached to sexual abuse victims, and the code of silence surrounding rape and harassment will only continue if women themselves are hidden away as well.

Creating women-only services shifts the focus from societal progress toward a temporary solution at best. SafeHer may in fact prevent sexual harassment, but it does so only by keeping women out of man’s reach, not by tearing down the sexism entrenched in societal male privilege.

I don’t want be hidden away in a corner where, yes, men cannot harm me, but also cannot hear me, nor see me. What we need is for society to acknowledge that sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated, period.


Lead image: flickr/Malinda Rathnayake

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