Standing under the light on an empty train platform. The text sent to a friend to let them you’re in a cab, just in case.
These are rituals women perform as they move through our cities, but when we think of solutions, gender-segregated ride hailing services are little more than a bandaid.
Shebah, an Uber alternative run by woman and for women exclusively, is set to launch in Australia in February. Georgina McEncroe, Shebah’s founder, said she believes demand from women would be high.
“We’re all raised with the same fear,” she told Mashable. “That it’s an inherent possibility that something could happen to us if we’re in a space where someone could lock the doors.”
Reception to the service has been mostly favourable locally, in marked contrast to the backlash against transport union boss Bob Nanva in early 2016 after he advocated a trial of women-only carriages on trains.
“It makes me feel really, really weird, the idea that women need to be protected from someone like me,” journalist Ben Fordham reportedly told The Today Show at the time.
When talking about taxi or Uber drivers, however, there seems to be little resistance to the idea that they are a threatening “other” from which women must be protected. Shebah has even received a plug from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Perhaps he should have simply told men in his state to not harass women?
Of course, being in a car alone with someone is a potentially intimidating situation compared to a crowded bus with plenty of bystanders but how much more? Although there have been horrific instances of alleged assault carried out by male Uber and taxi drivers, they are not the norm.
As must be pointed out again and again, women in Australia are far more likely to be assaulted by a family member than a stranger.
The message that women should not feel safe in public is an insidious one. A 2016 report commissioned by Plan International and Our Watch found that 30 percent of the 600 women aged 15 to 19 surveyed agreed that “girls should not be out in public places after dark.”
As the report points out, this suggests young women are “internalising” the idea that public spaces are not for them a view gender-segregated transport could inadvertently encourage.
Susanne Legena, deputy CEO of Plan International Australia, said that although she thought the idea of women designing services for other women was clever, there were clear disadvantages.
“The question is whether we should be improving public services or throwing in the towel.”
As Plan International’s survey showed, young women are already modifying their behaviour and spending more money on services like Uber to keep themselves safe. “It doesn’t account for the additional cost, and what about the women who can’t afford it?” she asked Mashable. “The solution is not to form an alternative world.”
Legena was also concerned that gender-segregated services would feed a culture of victim blaming. “Will they contribute to people saying ‘well, why was she on the bus?’ or ‘why was she in the Uber?’ instead of saying ‘women have the right to be wherever they want’?” she said.
Ruth Liston, a lecturer in criminology at RMIT University, echoed Legena’s concerns about victim blaming and segregated transport alternatives. While she saw offering choice to women as a good step, Liston suggested we should be encouraging Australian women to access all forms of transport, and to even become involved in supplying those services.
“In reality, women should be able to participate equally in society, on public transport, in public spaces,” she told Mashable. “The question is whether we should be improving public services or throwing in the towel.”
While a majority of Australian women report having experienced at least one form of street harassment, the young women in Plan International’s survey, for their part, overwhelmingly asked for culture change. “No physical [solutions] will help until social attitudes change,” one 18-year-old commented.
McEncroe strongly resisted the idea Shebah promoted fear. “I think a lot of women have been harassed by cab drivers, have been followed by Uber drivers,” she said. “I don’t think it’s creating a fear, I think it’s creating an option of work.”
In her view, suggesting that such services promote victim blaming is removing accountability from men. “We know that what causes rape is rapists, and providing people with an option where they feel more comfortable does not cause anything except comfort,” she added.
There are circumstances where women-only spaces can be useful. But women-only transport solutions are not the same as women-only spaces like clubs and societies safe places for organising and communing in solidarity.
With all the best intentions, women-only transport may serve to reinforce the idea that women are right to be afraid in public. Women shouldn’t have to change their behaviour to keep themselves safe.
Men should not be criminals. How about that?