It felt like I was in the Ladyland of Sultana's Dream. In Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's famous feminist utopian story, women go about doing their daily work with much ease and face no risk of being harassed or abused by men because men are kept indoors. I felt a similar sense of security when for the first time in my life I got onboard a bus exclusively for women. The experience was rather surreal.
It was the day the first nor'wester of the season hit Dhaka city. I was in Farmgate desperately looking for any kind of transport to go home after office. Usually, I get on whatever transport is available at the time: an Uber, a CNG-run autorickshaw, a rickshaw, and once in a while a public bus (of course, if a seat is available). After more than half an hour's wait, when a BRTC women-only bus miraculously stopped in front of me, I instantly boarded it with other women passengers without giving it a second thought. I even managed to find a seat. The condition of the road was awful as the storm had uprooted several big trees which were lying in the middle of the road making it difficult for the vehicles to pass through. Our bus, headed towards Mirpur, had to change its route several times before it finally found a way to its destination.
From the window I saw other public buses crammed with men. People were literally hanging from the doors. I could see that the seats reserved for women in those buses were also occupied by men. Clearly, those were the 'men-only' buses where women could hardly find any room for themselves.
My mother called me to know my whereabouts as it was getting late. I told her not to worry because I was on a women-only bus. Although it took two and a half hours to reach my destination, I was not worried at all. Rather, I took out the ear phones from my bag and started listening to music on my phone, without a care in the world. I couldn't remember the last time I did this on my way back home from office.
Other women passengers also seemed equally at ease. Some of them were talking on the phone, some were browsing Facebook, while others were trying to take a nap. The bus was full with some passengers standing. I offered one elderly woman my seat. She refused to take it. Clearly, she couldn't care less about a seat. The helper, also a woman, was collecting the fare while casually talking to the passengers. I never saw women feeling so comfortable in a public bus.
It's a completely different scenario when it comes to other public buses. Getting on a public bus is an everyday struggle for girls and women in this city. There is hardly any room for them in these buses except for the nine reserved seats. And sadly, during rush hour these seats are also occupied by men. Sometimes women have to wait on the street for hours before they can get on any of these buses. Moreover, women's struggle does not simply end with securing a spot in a bus. Instead, they constantly have to worry about their safety as they face different kinds of verbal and physical harassment by men surrounding them. Women often have to face groping, shoving/elbowing and abusive language.
The findings of several studies on women's safety on roads reveal the extent of the problem. A study by ActionAid in 2017 found that 49 percent of women feel unsafe in public transport. A whopping 94 percent of women surveyed by Brac for a recent study have complained of one form of harassment or another in public transport. The Brac study has also found that 20.5 percent women stopped using public transport because of safety issues.
Incidents of rape in public transport are also on the rise. The rape and murder of Rupa Khatun, a 27-year-old law student, in a Mymensingh-bound bus by its driver and his assistants is an example of how unsafe women passengers are. According to a report by Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, between January 2017 and January 2018, at least 17 women were either gang-raped or raped inside public transports while four other women were sexually harassed.
With around 54.38 percent of Dhaka's population being women and with more and more women joining the workforce, it is imperative that the government should take some pragmatic measures to make women's day-to-day commute safe. Although the government has formulated a law that fines and punishes a man if he occupies a seat reserved for women, the law is hardly implemented. Therefore, instead of formulating such laws, efforts should be made to change the mindset of men who seem to think that public space is for men only.
In fact, this very perception that women are taking up public space meant for men is the root cause of the harassment of women, according to Habibur Rahman, programme head of gender justice and diversity initiative at Brac (The Daily Star, March 7, 2018). This mindset needs to be changed through creating awareness. Bus drivers, helpers, as well as all those engaged in the transport sector need to be trained so they become gender-sensitive.
Until that goal is achieved, introducing dedicated bus services for women commuters will reduce their predicament to some extent. Currently, there are only 15 women-only buses in Dhaka. Earlier this month, Rangs Group has launched a bus service for women. The initiative was praised by all, especially women commuters. We need more such public and private initiatives so that women can move freely on the road with a sense of security.
Like countless other working women in this city, I will also prefer travelling by such a bus. Because I will neither have to sit beside a man taking up most of the space in the seat, nor will there be any man sitting next to me reading a pamphlet titled Stree Key Bosh Koribar Doshti Upaye (Ten ways to tame your wife).
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial department at The Daily Star.