Mon, Aug 06, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Female spaces -- the only answer to harassment?

There is a growing worldwide trend for women-only spaces on trains, beaches and in hotels. But do they really make women any safer?

By Jessica Valenti  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Growing up in New York City, I took the subway to school like most of my peers. I remember not quite understanding, as a 13-year-old, the looks I received from men my father's age -- or why they kept "accidentally" brushing up against me.

What was all that about? As the years went by, of course, it all became clear, and now, in my late 20s, when the topic comes up, I have yet to speak to a woman who hasn't had some experience of being groped on a train.

So I wasn't surprised by a recent report that showed that two out of every three subway riders in New York have been sexually harassed. The survey was of a mixed group, with almost 70 percent of respondents being women.

In Tokyo, the problem is just as bad -- 64 percent of women in their 20s and 30s reported being groped on the train or in transit stations. In fact, the problem is so well recognized in Japan, that there's even a specific name for subway harassment: chikan. And the city's answer to such large-scale harassment? Establishing a woman-only train carriage aimed at protecting potential victims.

Japan isn't the only country where a separate space has been set aside for women's safety. There are women-only train carriages in Rio de Janeiro, Moscow and Cairo. Italy has just established a women-only beach. And in the US a hotel recently announced that it is building a separate floor for female guests. All of which raises the question: Is this the latest in "girl power" or a sexist solution to a much bigger 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."

Not all feminists are so skeptical though. American writer, Katha Pollitt, says she doesn't think that the rise of women-only spaces will excuse society from confronting harassment and violence. Instead, she believes they simply 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," Pollitt said. "Women-only space is just a little breathing place for a few women every now and then."

Pollitt said these women-only spaces aren't just about escaping harassment.

"Men just take up too much space. They judge women's bodies. They flaunt their own. This is not going to change in our lifetime, or possibly ever," she said.

For some women, single-sex areas can be a way to expand movement in public spaces, rather than limit it.

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