This is a guest post by Caroline Esser, a research associate with the New America Foundation’s Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program.
On March 28 a mass email from Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, arrived in my inbox celebrating the fact that “Israeli women will no longer be forced to the back of the bus.” The email, which was referring to a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision which held that it is no longer legal for government-subsidized bus companies to require gender segregation, at first seemed to be a relic from the past, a historic document that miraculously found its way into 21st century inboxes. Buses where the women must enter through a separate door in the back and sit in the rear of the bus? This couldn’t be real.
However, despite the difficulty of imagining separate lines of men and women forming on Connecticut Avenue as I await the 42 bus with other Dupont commuters, I soon learned that government-subsidized segregated buses are a quite real phenomenon in Israel and in many other countries around the world including Japan, Egypt, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Indonesia, Belarus, the Philippines, Dubai, and Mexico. Immediately, I wondered if civil rights groups in these other countries view gender segregation in the same light as the Israel Religious Action Center–the advocacy group that initiated the Supreme Court case against Israel’s subsidization of segregated buses in 2007. Do feminists and human rights activists elsewhere consider gender segregated public transportation to be discriminatory against women? At least in Mexico, the answer is no, but they should.
The Institute of Mexico City Women (Inmujeres DF), a branch of the city’s government, first put women-only buses into circulation in Mexico City in 2008. The buses were part of a broader government effort to advance the lives of women and protect their right to lives without violence. Unlike in Israel, where gender segregated buses were motivated by a rapidly growing community of ultra-Orthodox men who believe in separation of males and females in public spaces, Mexico City’s women-only buses were motivated by women seeking protection from the all-too-frequent instances of sexual harassment on the city’s packed buses. The buses are not seen as discrimination but rather as a means of liberation. The director of Inmujeres DF, Martha Lucia Micher Camarena, told the New York Times in February 2008 that the buses are “positive discrimination that responds to the demands of women. And it’s also for men because it protects their daughters, sisters, and mothers.”
There is no question that the intentions of the Mexico City government were good. Inmujeres DF recognized that women were not being respected as equals and it attempted to honor the real concerns of its female citizens. However, despite the benevolent intent of the government, women’s rights groups should be equally outraged at the existence of women-only buses in Mexico as the advocacy groups were at the subsidization of gender segregated buses in Israel.
Yes, the women-only buses are optional and Inmujers DF has also organized a public education campaign to make it clear that inappropriate touching is illegal and has set up five service modules within the metro stations to give immediate attention to cases of abuse, but we need to think about the broader implications of these separate buses. The same New York Times article describes how the new patrons of the women-only buses were jeering at the men who were turned away from their bus. One such patron, Catalina Gardu