Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In an alarming French survey, 100 percent of women said they've experienced it.
For women, the freedom to move around cities comes with caveats. Every time we go out, we make a set of complex calculations to avoid sexual harassment, assault, or worse. Here are just some of the questions women everywhere ask themselves before leaving their homes:
"Should I take the train or the bus to avoid catcalls, casual groping, and flashes of male genitalia?"
"How much earlier do I need to leave to avoid being alone at the station?"
"Should I just take a cab back, if it's going to get late?"
I have made these calculations in New Delhi (where rapes on public transit have made international headlines) as well as in New York and London. Sexual harassment on public transit is a global problem—so commonplace that it has becomes a part of the urban scenery. Like construction noise or a bad smell, it's often ignored or quietly endured until it passes.
A new report, presented to France's deputy minister for women's rights last week, is further evidence of the sad ubiquity of transit harassment. The report surveyed 600 woman commuters, all of whom said they had been sexually harassed on public transit at some point in their lives. Here's the take of a lawyer who worked on the report, via Radio France Internationale:
“You ask a woman, ‘Have you been a victim of harassment or violence in public transportation?’ And she will say, ‘No, not at all’,” explains Elisabeth Moiron-Braud. “But then you ask, ‘Has a man ever pressed up against you or put his hand on your bottom?’ And she will say, ‘Yes!’”
The problem is so pervasive that many French women just accept the harassment as an unavoidable part of their daily commute. Here's harassment activist Héloïse Duché, again via RFI:
“Women keep quiet because they think it’s normal,” she says. “By showing that it is a manifestation of sexism, we can say no, it’s not normal, and we have the tools to fight against it.”
This report is just the latest evidence showing that, all too often, public transit isn't woman-friendly. The recent molestation of a sleeping woman on the New York City subway, while a bystander took a video, is another shocking example. The fear of being assaulted on public transport is widespread in America, despite the fact that more women than men use public transport, as Ann Friedman wrote for CityLab last year. Despite the solutions currently in place around the world, it still comes down to this, she writes:
City dwellers simply accept that public spaces are places where women can't expect to feel safe.
To cope with this reality, women often restrict their movements at certain times to certain places, choose a pricier (but safer) alternative, or decide to take public transit despite the risks. Each option costs us on a sliding scale—from a few extra dollars, to a loss of freedom of movement, to the possibility of real physical danger.