By Sahej Marwah Dec. 02, 2020
According to the latest notice issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Ola and Uber must provide a “female-only co-passengers” option while cab-pooling. While regulations like these encourage women to travel, it also raises the question: In 2020, why do we still have to rely on safety in numbers?
Travelling alone in public transport, as a woman, means constantly having your guard up. One must look angry or even threatening for looking feeble makes us more vulnerable to violence. Even today, buses, trains, metros continue to be unsafe for women because these public spaces are primarily dominated by men at all hours. Therefore, the only options that remain is to travel with other women or be on our guard at all times – neither of which is practical nor convenient.
The advent of private cab services such as Ola and Uber facilitated the switch from public transport to private mobility. Finally, women could now travel singularly and thus safely. But ever since these services have been introduced, they have come with their own set of problems pertaining to sexual harassment.
In December 2017, a 23-year-old woman was molested by an Ola driver in Bangalore. In December 2018, Uber reported 3000 sexual assault claims in its safety review. The companies’ response to these incidents has been little more than a shrug and shake of the head.
According to the latest notice issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, aggregators such as Ola, Uber must provide female passengers with the option to ride only with female passengers while availing the car-pool facility. While regulations like these encourage women to travel, it also raises the question: Why are we, as a society, still depending on safety in numbers? Before the government’s latest notice, some smaller cab companies used to tout an all-female driver pool as a selling point. Why is it that the presence of a man automatically transfers the burden of safety to a woman?
In 2017, I was riding shotgun in an Uber while dressed in shorts. For the driver, this was an invitation to keep stealing glances at my legs. I immediately lost confidence in him. Finally, when he could resist no longer, he said, “Ma’am, aap itne chote chote kapdo mein bahut achhi lagti ho.” (Ma’am, you look very good in these short clothes.)
Stepping out of the house should not have to be accompanied by a 10-point escape plan.
Upon complaining to Uber about this, the extent of their resolution was to waive off my fare for the ride, a token measure that enabled them to claim that they responded without any real accountability for the driver. These companies provide farcical safety features for women but in reality, there is very limited scope for women’s safety. These remedial measures, while cognisant of the threat posed by male co-passengers, are cursory at best.
With the introduction of female-only co-passengers, the government fails to directly address the larger issue. Much like in metro coaches and local trains, segregation of women into different compartments has been an age-old “solution” to sexual harassment. The core of this issue is that public spaces, then, are not really public if half the population needs a specially demarcated area. They merely give the illusion of safety while boxing women into alleged safe spaces. Furthermore, these regulations place the onus on women for their safety and burden them with additional tasks. There is no knowing whether cabs will be easily available to them without the demand of other female passengers on the same route and could also lead to an increased waiting time. While segregation may offer a temporary solution, it is not viable in the long-term. It simply treats the symptom without addressing the disease.
It is also imperative to educate and sensitise drivers about these problems, something that’s currently neglected for the most part. Incentivisation programmes and compulsory certification will force them to confront the issue. This process may take time but it ensures a permanent solution. Finally, these aggregators must have stricter norms for employing drivers. Women would never have had to pursue extreme measures of safety had it not been for men behaving like predators.
Stepping out of the house should not have to be accompanied by a 10-point escape plan. If the only way for women to be safe is to be surrounded by their kind, are we not heading for a more divided society than an equal one?
Sahej Marwah likes to have a finger in every bowl. She spends her time baking, writing, editing, podcasting, and pampering her cat. It's safe to say that she is now running out of fingers and is open to donations.