Dressed in a blue off-shoulder dress and pumps, Shreya Jain, 21, is waiting with a bunch of girlfriends for the Metro going towards Badarpur. It is Thursday. “We’re going to Velocity in GK (a pub in Greater Kailash-I)," she tells me. An economics graduate from Delhi University’s Daulat Ram College, she’s now studying to become an actuary. This is the only free day she gets in the week. So, on Thursdays, she takes the Metro from her GTB Nagar home in north Delhi to “Medical" (the All India Institute of Medical Sciences), where a few of her friends wait for her. From here, they travel farther south, to watch movies, eat out and sometimes go to pubs. “If it weren’t for the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro, I wouldn’t have been able to dress this way," she says.

Inside the compartment, Jain is far from conscious about her clothes and isn’t worried about people staring. But she remembers a time before the women’s compartment was introduced on 2 October 2010. When she first came to Delhi from Chhattisgarh in 2009, she would have to travel in the general compartment. That meant dressing more conservatively, she says. The compartments would be chock-a-block, and there was definitely no way that she and her friends could have planned an outing like this, Jain adds.

Ritika Jain, 26, works at a BPO in Noida. She too remembers taking the rush-hour train before the ladies’ compartment segregated the traffic of men and women commuters. She lowers her voice as she tells me that someone had groped her behind. When she turned around, only a venerable-looking old man was standing there. “I couldn’t even say anything; I wasn’t sure who had done it," she says. Now, even when she’s travelling with a male companion, she makes sure she’s in the ladies’ coach while the man stands in the bridge between the first two cars of the train.

Peak hours see around 300 women travelling in one coach

Activist Kalpana Viswanath says, “eventually we would like for all spaces to be safe for women" but for now, this temporary solution is welcome indeed.

“The compartment is a space for yourself. It is not invaded by the male gaze," Viswanath says. She is a senior adviser for the Safe Delhi Initiative of Jagori, a women’s non-governmental organization.

What’s more, the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro has since evolved into more than just a medium to get from Point A to Point B. The Metro commute offers travellers anywhere between a blissful few minutes to a couple of hours of free time. Women are using that time to do what they want.

On the morning commute, many catch up on sleep, still more read books and newspapers, some listen to music on their cellphones and iPods, some play phone games and some pass the time just watching other people. Author Kamla Bhasin, 67, says she loves to watch people on the Metro. There are women clad in all kinds of saris, fashionable dresses, pants, jeans, skirts, shorts, salwar-kameez, and what Bhasin finds most heartening, they’re almost always in “sensible shoes".

Many women spend their time talking—on phones or to friends they’re travelling with. As the peak traffic gathers each day from 8-11am and again from 5-8pm, the decibel level rises. There are nearly 300 women packed in a compartment that has seating for around 50. Most days, there’s a cacophony of sounds. It’s hard to not overhear snippets; about how one was able to get a bargain on bottle gourds and apples today, how another aced a test after studying for 3 hours; and how a third who has just moved to Delhi can’t get over the hardwater problem in her locality. Conversations about finding friends through Facebook and making plans to watch BA Pass over the weekend mingle with the voice-recorded message blaring the station name and other announcements that few regulars heed.

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Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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