Being a single working women and a regular commuter in this city, I often have to deal with sarcastic debates on why there should be reserved seats for us. The arguments are hardly ever rational. Instead they always go like this – if women demand gender equality on one hand, why will they get special privileges and reserved seats?
Well, that debate, right now, is hot cakes all over the media following the startling introduction of a new law.
A few days back, the cabinet approved a draft 'Road Transport Act-2017' prepared by the Road Transport and Highways Division, which states that if someone wrongly occupies the assigned seats for women and disabled commuters, he will be jailed for a month or fined Tk. 5,000. The moment the news went viral on Facebook, people turned the tables on us – what would be the law if we, the women, occupy a male seat? The fact that people seem to also think that any and every seat other than the priority places are reserved for men shows how little understanding there is about the issue.
So, needless to say, the law disturbed some already muddy waters.
Since the issue seems to have gotten very confusing, let us take it apart and debunk some fallacies, shall we?
With the expansion of the public mass transit around the world, keeping priority seats has become a marker of how efficient the transport system is. Bangladesh introduced the idea of reserving seats for women, disabled and children in 2008. Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), Metropolitan Transport Authority and the representatives of women's rights movement conducted a collaborative meeting in this regard and came up with a decision that every bus has to reserve nine seats for women, disabled and children, while for minibuses, the reserved number of seats will be six. It was also decided that, these seats should be reserved behind the driver so that they can board easily and don't need to face unwanted push by the male commuters while getting down from the buses.
The fact that the women's rights movement was involved in this shows that it came out of a real need.
A 2010 journal of Bangladesh Institute of Planners mentions that around 41 percent of female commuters face sexual harassment and groping while travelling by public bus in Dhaka city. I have had the same experience as well, not too long ago. I was trying to get into a bus at Farmgate during rush hour. I managed to push through a huge crowd of male commuters, but unfortunately couldn't manage a seat. Suddenly I felt a man intentionally rub his elbow from the back. I lost my balance and fell forward. I was uncomfortable, angry and I started yelling at him. But to my surprise, the morally-challenged man gave me a very general excuse that it was a mere - 'hard brake'. It wasn't a brake.
Though a few women took my side in fighting against that person, the male commuters started saying that it was not intentional.
It happened with me – I knew it was intentional, but they didn't believe it. There's actually a word for this – mansplaining – that is, when a man makes assumptions about you without taking into account what you actually think. I was angry and upset and I felt unsafe knowing nobody will take my side should something happen to me.
During rush hours, the drivers are reluctant to pick up women. I have seen so many women almost beg the bus conductors to let them get in after office hours. It happens because the drivers and conductors believe that female passengers are slow to get on the bus and require more room. As a result, women need to wait for a long time in the bus stops and suffer from catcalls and molestation. A report titled 'Safe Cities for Women' by ActionAid Bangladesh also found that in Dhaka, 87 percent regular women commuters face sexual harassment in bus stops.
Since statistically women are more prone to getting sexually violated in public transport, having reserved seats then becomes a matter of their right to safety.
This is not about equality – this is about equity.
The new law, however, is making a mockery out of our rights. Cooperation from men cannot be enforced with a stick. A law like this would mean that a male commuter sitting in the priority section, when there are no takers around, can be jailed.
Policy analyst Syed Mahbubul Haque, who is also the secretary of Centre for Laws and Policy Affairs, informs that the draft law will create conflict. “At first we need to work on changing our mentality which can only be changed in a positive way to make a women-friendly environment everywhere with the cooperation of men,” he adds.
Advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), also mentions that instead of creating a law that can create more conflict, the transport committee should sit with the bus conductors and drivers and train them to develop a gender-sensitive attitude. “Also, the male commuters should develop an attitude of respecting women and that should be ensured and monitored through family, educational institutions and training in the workplaces,” she adds.
The trick, really, lies in changing the patriarchal and entitled mindsets of men. Till that ideal can be achieved, reserved seats can provide women a form of a safe space and enable them to move without constantly worrying about their safety and discomfort.