Whatever you think of the policy, it is clear we must do something drastic to stop sexual assaults on public transport.
Women-only train carriages are back on the agenda — and like when Jeremy Corbyn first floated the idea in 2015, everyone is angry about the idea.
This time, Derby North MP Chris Williamson put himself in the firing line by saying it would be “worth consulting” on the controversial policy, after the BBC reported that assaults on public transport had more than doubled in the last five years.
He was shot down both by Labour colleagues — who said the move would be “normalising attacks” — and numerous journalists and commentators who said the policy was victim-blaming, in some cases while making dubious comparisons to the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia.
Let’s be clear: the focus needs to be on making abusers change their behaviour and on punishing them — harshly — if they don’t, not on telling women they must behave differently to avoid being assaulted.
But at the same time, the issue has started a conversation on social media where women are adding harrowing colour to the 1,448 incidents reported to transport police last year — and many are saying the policy would make an immediate improvement to their lives. Stories of 13-year-olds being groped, men feeling it’s ok to masturbate in packed-out carriages, and sexual assault survivors too frightened to travel alone at night has put the problem into stark relief.
While detractors say the move would be accepting assaults as inevitable, rejecting the idea outright without proposing an alternative is failing to recognise and take seriously the prevalence of assaults right now and the way in which this is forcing women to modify their behaviour.
Last year, I witnessed a teenage girl sexually assaulted by a group of drunk men on a late night train. Of course, it was her who ran away and got off at the next stop. Although I later confronted the men and reported the incident, she was too afraid to do so herself — understandably, all she wanted to do was escape an immensely traumatic situation and never have to see the perpetrators again. Reporting them also made little difference: transport police failed to arrest them at the station and there were no guards around to help out.
As it stands, the girl will probably experience the same thing again and again and again. Or she will feel forced to change her behaviour and stop getting trains alone at night.
It may not be a solution in itself, but there is a pragmatic argument for women-only carriages as an interim measure, which is being largely buried by simplistic rhetoric and a disingenous framing of the original proposal. Arguing against the policy on ideological grounds ignores the experience of many women and young girls who are assaulted and become afraid of travelling alone on public transport. It ignores the fact that they feel forced to alter their behaviour already.
When he first proposed the policy two years ago Corbyn made it clear the aim was to give women more freedom than they currently have, not less.
“It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket,” he said. “This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews or avoiding certain means of transport.”
He also did not suggest the measure in isolation, floating the idea of a 24-hour hotline for women to report harassment, along with broader measures to tackle assault in society such as tougher rules for licence holders on reporting incidents on their premises and cabinet members for women’s safety on local councils.
Many concerns about victim blaming could be mitigated — and even reversed — by implementing women-only carriages carefully. They could be introduced in tandem with harsher punishments and more guards (indeed, these would be needed for enforcement) and an emphasis on how women are allowed to go in all carriages and men are limited in the space they are allowed to occupy. We would need to remain vigilant against victim blaming and to strengthen campaigns like TFL’s ‘Report it to stop it‘ initiative.
Like the debate, women-only carriages implemented in the right way could raise awareness of the issue and force society to take sexual assault more seriously. It would blame and shame male perpetrators, not victims. And it would stop women having to suffer until the problem is solved.
In effect, women-only carriages might not be viable. It might not be possible to enforce them, they might pose problems for trans people, and they might simply be too unpopular to make work. But we need to talk about them in a calm and nuanced way, and we need to consider equally radical alternatives, because the fierce debate around the issue has highlighted just how serious the problem is. Let’s hope all the talk translates into real change — whatever that might look like.
Charlotte England is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.