by Mridu Khullar
- India -
5:49 pm: The local Western Railway train pulls up at the Churchgate station in Mumbai. People on various platforms rush from one corner to the other, preoccupied with getting to their next destination on time. I'm possibly the only person who's taken a moment to stand and look around at the swarm of fleeting bodies around me. I board the train.
5:54 pm: The compartment is almost full now, and not only is there no space to sit, there is very little room even to stand. An announcement over the loudspeaker by a man with a hoarse voice advises men to remember that they will not be allowed to board - this train is for women only. No one seems to need the reminder though. In the several years that the Ladies Special has been running, the train has lost its novelty and become a way of life for commuters in Mumbai.
5:55 pm: The train moves with a jolt. In stark contrast to the frenzy of activity just minutes ago, life stands still inside the compartment as the train runs at high speed. Many women nestle comfortably into their seats and close their eyes. Others read magazines, look outside or make small talk with the others.
The Mumbai Suburban Railway is the oldest in Asia. With a length of 303 kilometers, it claims to have the highest passenger density of any urban railway system in the world, transporting over six million commuters each day. In fact, it constitutes more than half of the total daily passenger capacity of the Indian Railways itself.
These suburban trains are commonly known as locals, and they run from around 4 a.m. till 1 a.m. Mumbaikers are often fond of saying that you haven't experienced Mumbai until you've been on one of its local trains.
But the local train network, while the lifeline of the commuters in this city, is also one of its biggest embarrassments. The trains are jam-packed at any hour of the day, and even standing in the crowd, hoping to get pushed in won't get you anywhere. If you want to get on the train, no matter whether you're male or female, the only way is to grab anything or anyone, and push yourself through.It gets worse. Women cannot travel from one station to the next without having their bottoms pinched, their bodies grabbed or pushed against, or if they're lucky, just suffer the indignity of being leered at.
The Ladies Special is a welcome relief. Introduced in 1992, the trains run on Mumbai's Western and Central Railway lines. While there are ladies-only compartments in other trains as well, these trains are exclusively for female travelers. The Churchgate to Virar Ladies Special was the first to run the line and was the first of its kind in India.
Mansi, a 16-year-old student and regular commuter is not too impressed. "It's just another train," she says. "And when it comes down to it, women push and shove just as much."
Poonam, 21, an executive in a multinational company and also a regular commuter on the train, disagrees. "It's more comfortable in a ladies-only train," she says. "You can travel safely even when it's crowded and don't have to worry about men finding excuses to touch you."
Had the Ladies Special been the first train I'd taken this evening, I'd be unimpressed, too. But only a few hours ago, I'd boarded the general compartment of a local train, where in the span of half an hour, one man had nodded off on my shoulder, and another conveniently pushed against me, even though there seemed to be plenty of space behind him.
Here however, I sit without being pinched or grabbed, without having to worry that some part of my clothing is about to be left behind in the hands of a guy who thinks it's okay to touch my butt. On the Ladies Special, instead of the physical harassment, I get warm conversation and tips on the best places to find great South Indian food in the city.
I'm not alone. Women all over the compartment seem to be relaxed. The train is crowded, and several women are cramped together in tiny spaces, but there are no signs of grappling.
At the door, a woman in a black tank top holds the bar in the middle, talks on her mobile phone and lets the wind blow her hair out of her face. Not too far from her stands a woman in a burkha, clearly at ease. In the corner seat, a woman in a business suit listens to music on her MP3 player while next to her a group of college students discuss a project.
Opposite from them is a woman in a green sari. Her complexion is dusky, her smile warm. Her hair is parted down the middle and is filled with sindoor; she repeatedly tells her eight-year-old son to get his hands inside the window."This is a ladies train," one woman says jovially trying to distract the boy. "What are you doing here? Don't you know—men are not allowed?" The boy turns to look at his smiling mother, then to the woman and gives a goofy grin. "I'm allowed," he whispers meekly, looking down and creating circles on the floor with his toe. "I'm not a man."
In another corner, a woman sleeps.
The one hour and forty-five minute journey is eventful at times, uneventful at others. Vendors hawk goods to a woman-only audience—items such as bindis and make-up, food and snacks. And women who have never before met and likely never will again, become comfortable sharing the stories of their lives.
The ladies-only train is a unique space. It is a market and a restaurant. It is the counselor's leather sofa. It is the movie without the ticket, the therapy without the bill. Women from all walks of life—the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheist, the burkha-clad housewife and the skirt-wearing college student—share the feeling of security in this women's-only space.
"What's the difference?" asks the student, and rightly so. After all, aren't we creating divisions rather than removing them? But as one woman puts it, "When there is true equality in the rest of the world, these women-only spaces will cease to have any meaning. Until then, I'm taking the ladies train."
- This is the first article in Mridu Khullar's series on women-only projects in India. - Ed.
About the Author Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women’s eNews, and East West, among others.
Khullar is currently a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.