Palwal: As the morning commuter train rattled down the track, Chinu Sharma, an office worker, enjoyed the absence of men. Some of them pinch and grope women on trains, or shout insults and catcalls, she said. Her friend Vandana Rohile agreed and widened her eyes in mock imitation.
“Sometimes they just stare at you,” said Rohile, 27.
Up and down the jostling train, women repeated the same theme: As millions of women have poured into the Indian workforce over the last decade, they have met with different obstacles in a tradition-bound, patriarchal culture, but few are more annoying than the basic task of getting to work.
Safe ride: Women aboard the Ladies Special train connecting Palwal to New Delhi. In a pilot project, the government has introduced these trains in the wake of eve teasing that women face while commuting to work. Chiara Goia/The New York Times
The problems of taunting and harassment, known as eve teasing, are so persistent that in recent months the government has decided to simply remove men altogether. In a pilot programme, eight new commuter trains exclusively for women passengers have been introduced in the four largest cities, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.
The trains are known as Ladies Specials, and on one recent round trip in which a male reporter got permission to board, the women commuting between the industrial town of Palwal and New Delhi were very pleased.
“It’s so nice here,” said a teacher, Kiran Khas, who has commuted by train for 17 years. Khas said the regular trains were crowded with vegetable sellers, pickpockets, beggars and lots of men. “Here on this train,” she said, as if describing a miracle, “you can board anywhere and sit freely.”
India would seem to be a country where women have shattered the glass ceiling. The country’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, is a woman. The country’s current president, a somewhat ceremonial position, is a woman. So are the foreign secretary and the chief minister of the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. India’s Constitution guarantees equal rights for women, while Indian law stipulates equal pay for work and punishment for sexual harassment.
But the reality is very different for the average working woman, many analysts say.
Since the country began economic reforms in the early 1990s, women have entered the urban workforce, initially as government office workers, but now increasingly as employees in the booming services sector or in professional jobs. Over all, the number of working women has roughly doubled in 15 years.
But violence against women has also increased, according to national statistics. Between 2003 and 2007, rape cases rose by nearly 30%, kidnapping or abduction cases rose by nearly 50%, while torture and molestation also jumped sharply.
Mala Bhandari, who runs an organization focused on women and children, said the influx of women into the workplace had eroded the traditional separation between public space (the workplace) and private space (the home). “Now that women have started occupying public spaces, issues will always arise,” she said. “And the first issue is security.”
India’s newspapers are filled with accounts of the frictions wrought by so much social change.
Last week, a husband in Noida was brought in by the police and accused of beating his wife because she had cut her hair in a Western style. In June, four colleges in Kanpur tried to bar female students from wearing blue jeans, saying that they were “indecent” and that they contributed to rising cases of sexual harassment. After protests from female students, state officials ordered the colleges to drop the restriction.
For many years, women travelling by train sat with men, until crowding and security concerns prompted the railroad to reserve two compartments per train for women. But with trains badly overcrowded, men would break into cars for women and claim seats. Mumbai started operating two women-only trains in 1992, yet the programme was never expanded. Then, with complaints rising from women passengers, Mamata Banerjee, the new minister for railways and also a woman, announced the eight new Ladies Specials.
“It speaks of their coming of age and assertiveness,” said Mukesh Nigam, a high-ranking railway official.
Many men are not thrilled. Several women passengers said eve teasing was worse here in northern India than elsewhere in the country. As the Ladies Special idled on track 7 at the station in Palwal, a few men glared from the platform. The Ladies Special was far less crowded, with clean, padded benches and electric fans, compared with the dirty, darkened train on track 6 filled with sullen men. Vandals sometimes write profanities on the Ladies Special, or worse.
“The local boys will come and use the bathroom on the train,” said Meena Kumari, one of the women ticket collectors in flowing blue saris who patrol the train along with women security officers. “They do it out of contempt. They do not want the train to run.”
As the train began moving, one woman sat meditating. Nearby, an accountant read a Hindu prayer book, while college students gossiped a few rows away. “If you go to work, then you are independent, you earn some money and can help the family,” said Archana Gahlot, 25. “And if something happens to the marriage, you have something.”
“Even on this train,” Gahlot continued, “men sometimes board and try to harass the women. Sometimes they openly say, ‘Please close the Ladies Special.’”
“Maybe they think the government is helping out women and not men,” she added.
The eight new trains represent a tiny fraction of the nation’s commuter trains. As many as 35 commuter trains serve New Delhi, of which only one is a Ladies Special, though the railway ministry has announced future Ladies Special lines. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said the service was a politically astute move, if not a long-term solution.
“You really need to make every train as safe as the Ladies Specials,” she said.
Men are hardly the only ones unnerved by the changing role of women in Indian society. Namita Sharma, 39, remembers that her mother advised her to become a teacher to balance work and family; instead, she chose a career in fashion. Now that Sharma has a 14-year-old daughter with ideas of her own, she worries about crime.
“She has her own point of view, and I have my own point of view for her,” she said, smiling. “Let’s see who wins. She talks of independence. I am independent.”
But she added, “Let’s talk of a secure kind of independence.”
Then the train stopped, and Sharma stood up. Asked what more the government could do for women, she laughed.
“Oh my God, it is a long list,” she said. “But I’m sorry, this is my station.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Hari Kumar contributed to this story.