After graduating from college last fall, I decided to take a gap year to do some traveling before graduate school. Currently, I am backpacking in India with my best pal Anita, another 25 year old, single woman from San Francisco.
In two months now, we have gone 3,933 kilometers, the majority of our travel, via the Indian Railway system. For the country’s booming populace, foreigners and freight, the train system is one of India’s signature features.
As deep-rooted as the rail lines, the traditional distinctions between genders are preserved and strong. Gender specific services and social behavior can range from seriously problematic to pleasantly enriching and life at the train station demonstrates just a few episodes:
Purchasing our tickets at the Railway Station in New Delhi was an exercise in patience more difficult than 10 days of silent meditation. The ticket counters look somewhat like Black Tuesday in 1929. The lines are back-to-chest, two or three people wide, at least eight people are standing at the front of the line trying to fling desperate reservation slips into the window. As the majority of the people in train stations and their lines are men, there is a single “Ladies” window. This alternative presumably bypasses the need to stand groin-to-butt with a bunch of sweaty old men, but the alternative isn’t much better: Not long after I attempted to stand in the Ladies line, a fight broke out in the line next to us and proceeded to infiltrate the other lines.
I rate the experience neutral, because the separation of gender in these enquiry lines does nothing for safety, comfort or efficiency. As it turns out, the foreign tourist office (if your train station has one) is the most efficient way to book train travel for VISA holders.
At times, gender inequality in pricing rears its ugly head and the Indian train station is no exception. In hot, humid Goa just before our 30 hour trip to Delhi, I decided it was necessary to relieve myself, finding the railway station’s bathrooms are both separate and unequal. For a man, the urinal is 50 paisa (half a rupee), whereas a woman must pay Rs 1 for use of the toilet. Were it up to me, I’d pay 20 times as much if the restrooms were even modestly inspected, but for women who make Rs 100 a day (about $2 USD), this is just unfair. Anita and I have experienced patronizing language, groping and even gender-based seating in restaurants because we are women traveling unaccompanied, something Indian women rarely do. But for this to be institutionalized by the Railway Corporation on principle left a negative impact on me.
On one of our shorter train rides in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I scoffed a bit when we were handed tickets for the “Ladies” car. What if I cared to find my own spot in a less crowded sitting class car?
As I packed myself into the sardine can of a car, I thought of the other trains I’d taken: mostly surrounded by men twice my age, sitting in silence, keeping to myself because of the barriers age, language and gender have on us. The Ladies Car introduced me to a world I had only tasted briefly once before in India. I was free to make conversation, smile and be smiled at (no suspicion of flirting), have conversations, share food, take photos. I got to know a local zoology teacher, a Christian with one young son. A group of high school girls enthusiastically probed Anita about our travels and our families back home. Best of all, I learned- learned about people from themselves and not in my guidebook or because I paid someone to teach me.
Since then, we’ve done another 60 hours of train travel, all in general quota cars. Though each ride has introduced me to different people and a unique experience of India, the Ladies Car remains in my experience one of the most memorable places I have visited in India. This gender-based space, a segregated train car, sounded awful to me as a Westerner. I had preconceptions before getting to India, about the effect of gender in matters like transportation. Today I cannot help but ask us to rethink the assets and liabilities of having a space for women, not based in fear but for the rewards which community can reap.