Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
Summer isn't only associated with the beach and ice cream. For some female commuters in urban cities, it is also a season notorious for harassment on the subway. Every once in a while, there are reports of how improper body contact, intentional or not, escalates into violence.
One recent spat on the Beijing subway involved an economist in his 60s, who beat a young female passenger after being accused by her of sexual harassment. The man argued he was dozing off and may have unconsciously leaned on the woman.
Following the incident, voices have emerged again calling for the setting up of women-only carriages. It is reported that subways in Shenzhen, in South China's Guangdong Province may launch a trial "women-only" carriage in June to be promoted into wider use if successful.
It should be good news that special care is being considered necessary for protecting female passengers. In some other Asian countries, for example Japan and Malaysia, women-only carriages have been in use for a while. But the plan in Shenzhen has been scorned by netizens, with most citing gender discrimination.
Many men polled understandably oppose the idea of women-only carriages, as it assumes that female passengers are easily victimized by harassment, which puts male passengers in an uneasy position. There is also concern regarding the feasibility of the idea as it may worsen traffic flow during rush hour.
In addition, what about women who are unable to squeeze into the special carriage? Will they have a harder time in a mixed coach?
The staunchest dissenting voices seem to come from women. Many deemthat women-only carriages would send a message that sexual harassment was tacitly tolerated enough that women needed a special coach to avoid trouble. To them, the arrangement carries the same meaning as in some extremely conservative countries where women must wear a veil to be respected. In other words, women-only carriages would implicitly be accepting the dominant position of male over female.
If women accept separate coaches as the best way to protect them on the subway, they might soon need to compromise more, such as dressing more conservatively, or better yet just avoid going out to stay safe. This is moving away from the principle of gender equality, and is a self-inflicted segregation.
Whether the special care offered by women-only carriages is a respectful or discriminating step is bone of contention. Throughout the world, countries that offer women-only carriages are still in minority, and generally the practice doesn't appear to be catching on.
Feminism-related topics are always controversial and divisive. In China, proposals for bigger and wider women-only parking lots have invited intense debate, the implication being that women are so naturally bad at parking that they need special treatment as disabled people.
Granted, sexual harassment happens not only on crowded subways. A secure public order is the prerequisite for women's safety in any society. Don't count on women-only carriages becoming an oasis for woman if local police can barely maintain basic order. On that point, at least women in China are blessed in that they can even debate the issue, instead of yearning for more women-only carriages.
However, one important consideration on this issue is the extreme number of passengers on most Chinese metropolitan subway systems during peak hours. Restrictive measures must be enforced to ensure the safety of passengers; in some cases train won't even stop at busy stations.
Given that female passengers, as well as elderly and child passengers, need special protection for the sake of their own safety, maybe a "Special Care" carriage is an acceptable solution?
The author is a commentator with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org