A German rail operator is introducing woman-only carriages. Is this progressive or depressing?

Soon to be segregated. Image: Clic17 at Wikimedia Commons.

Germany just became the first western European country this century to introduce women-only carriages on a part of its public transport network.

There's a lot to unpick here, but let's start with the basics. The Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn, a privately-owned German train line running between Leipzig and Chemnitz, announced this week that it will introduce two women-only carriage on trains running on this line. Boys under the age of 10 will also be allowed in, and the carriage will be located next to the conductor's office. 

Publications were quick to leap on the fact that Cologne – the city where around 1,000 men gathered outside the train station to harass women on New Year's Eve  is also in Germany. Yet the train line has denied that the move has anything to do with the attacks, or the fact that the only man charged was charged just days before the announcement.

In fact, Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn hasn't said much at all about its decision to introduce the carriages, beyond denying that the Cologne attacks affected it. I approached a spokesperson, who said that the move was in response to customer requests: 

The women compartments are train compartments especially for alone travelling women...  We implemented those compartments on customer's request. It is our first priority that our customers feel comfortable and safe at any time during their travel experience with us.

Separate but equal?

Segregated transport is used around the world (in India, Russia, Mexico, and Japan) to reduce the risk of sexual harassment. Transport is, unfortunately, a very common site for harassment around the world, as a recent Reuters report revealed. Researchers found that in Bogota, the city ranked most dangerous, 82 per cent of women did not feel safe on public transport. 

Yet the "solution" of segregated carriages is a pragmatic, not idealistic, one. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was slammed when he implied that we could consider something similar in the UK, but his comments were actually based on consultations with groups of women, who admitted that they would feel safer in their own carriage, at times. 

On a practical level, a major objection to segregated carriages on metro systems it that they could actually attract sexual predators, especially at night when trains are emptier. The German scheme has a fix for this in the form of the carriage's positioning near onboard staff. There's a strong argument that staffing trains and tubes better might solve the problem such that separate carriages aren't needed in the first place. 

Yet wherever their location, segregated carriages still fall into the same trap as the advice handed out to women by the mayor of Cologne shortly after the New Year's attacks: it asks women to modify their behaviour, as opposed to tackling harassment at its source. Perhaps it's a necessary step, for now – but it won't make transport safer in any real sense. 

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