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India: On 'Ladies Special' trains, there are no men to harass women

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Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

(Read caption) Women at the Nizamuddin Railway Station in New Delhi.

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

NEW DELHI – They don’t look anything like Indian trains: no jostling crowds, no littered floors, and most of all – in this male-dominated society – no men. Eight women-only trains, called the Ladies Specials, are now chugging their way around Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai (Madras), and Calcutta.

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The trains were introduced by India’s new, female railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, in response to one of the biggest changes sweeping India: the upsurge in working women.

Since 1995, the number of Indian women with jobs has doubled. But if the Ladies Specials are a marker of social change, so are some men’s reactions to them. There have been reports of male passengers trying to board the Ladies Specials with force, and complaining bitterly when they are stopped at the door.

“Oh, ho – the sort of men who used to molest me when I traveled by train will hate the Ladies Specials,” says Indrani Bhattachariya, a research assistant for a multinational, who now commutes to work by auto rickshaw. She believes that many of the men who harassed her – jeering when she ran for a train, for example – “were threatened by a woman in her smart work clothes. They feel they are losing control so they have to mock and molest,” she adds.

Indeed, Ms. Banerjee was prompted to introduce the Ladies Specials because of increasing reports from female commuters of “Eve teasing,” a term here for sexual harassment. Jam-packed trains are perfect territory for harassers, and India’s railways are the most crowded in the world. Mumbai’s railway transports 7 million commuters a day. Eight trains won’t accommodate all India’s working women, of course. “The trains are great, but ... if the government really wanted to support women it would educate them all,” says Ms. Bhattachariya.

Female literacy in India is below 50 percent.