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Are Women-Only Spaces the Solution to Sexual Harassment?

Some cities are using segregated public transportation to make women safer. But instead of preventing sexism, in many ways, this trend excuses it.
 
 
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Last week Mexico City unveiled women-only buses as a way to battle the increasing sexual harassment on public transportation.

Some men treat women so badly that the subway system has long had ladies-only cars during rush hour, with police segregating the sexes on the platforms.

But that hasn't helped women forced to rely on packed buses, by far the city's most-used form of public transportation -- until this week.

Acting on complaints from women's groups, the city rolled out "ladies only" buses, complete with pink signs in the windshields to wave off the men.

Pink signs, huh? I'm all for safe spaces for women, but is segregation really an answer to sexism? I've written about this trend of women-only spaces before, most recently for The Guardian, and I still fail to see how this is anything but a temporary solution to a systemic problem.

There's no doubt the harassment women face in public spaces needs to be addressed -- whether it is on the street, the train, or even the internet. We've been subjected to regular catcalls and groping for far too long. But while the idea of a safe space is compelling, this international trend -- which often comes couched in paternalistic rhetoric about "protecting" women -- raises questions of just how equal the sexes are if women's safety relies on us being separated. After all, shouldn't we be targeting the gropers and harassers? The onus should be on men to stop harassing women, not on women to escape them.

Betsy Eudey, director of gender studies at California State University, says that while some single-sex environments could be beneficial -- locker rooms where people are expected to be naked are an obvious example -- she finds that "segregated spaces only enhance division by sex, and prevent the necessary actions needed to make public spaces safe and welcoming to all."

The Nation's own Katha Pollitt, in an interview for this article, said that she doesn't think that the rise of women-only spaces will excuse society from confronting harassment and violence, but instead offer a small respite for women in a male-dominated world.

"Obviously, there would never be enough women-only space to accommodate all women all the time -- half the subway cars or half the hotels ... Women-only space is just a little breathing place for a few women every now and then."

I'm pro-breathing space, but I have larger concerns as well. What happens when a woman is groped -- or worse -- in a train car that isn't women-only? Will she be blamed for not taking advantage of the "safe" space provided? (After all, women are all too used to being blamed when it comes to assault, questioned as to why they were out on their own/wearing a short skirt/drinking).

If we're going to make women safe, let's make them safe everywhere -- not just in designated areas.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.

 
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