Subway Lines: an Unlikely Beginning of the #Metoo Movement in China

On June 26, 2017, China first tried to set up priority seating for women in subways, and Shenzhen was the first subway line to carry out pilot work on women’s priority carriages.  A few days later, on June 28, 2017, Guangzhou metro had also officially set up priority carriages for women as an experiment unit, between 7:30 to 9:30, weekdays.

The social urgency behind women’s priority seating

In China, reports of sexual harassment toward women on public transportation have frequently appeared on the news.  These reports are only the tip of the iceberg of the many sexual harassment cases against women in public places.Women who report sexual harassment rather than enduring it passively are in the minority. Even when greatly enraged, most women remain silent about sexual harassment because most feel embarrassment and shame, and the social consequences that can come from reporting sexual harassment–such as unwanted scrutiny, and the public eye gawking at something deeply personal and traumatic for some.

Research shows that 81.9% of citizens in China agree that sexual harassment exists in the subway, and among these people, 21.6% believe that sexual harassment happens quite frequently. Su Zhongyang, a CPPCC member of Guangdong province who proposed the motion on the establishment of a women’s-only car for the Guangzhou metro, mentioned in his proposal that “Because of the long, hot Guangdong Summer, women’s clothing is generally thin, flimsy, and sheer. Women will be plagued by the ‘subway sex maniac’ when they are taking the subway. Therefore, under current transportation conditions, physical contact between passengers is unavoidable, and too much physical contact will always make people feel uncomfortable.”

Rising public awareness of a current women’s issue

A sexist stereotype is evident throughout the latter quote–namely, that the way that women dress makes sexual harassment unavoidable rather than emphasizing some men’s inability to control themselves. Despite Zhongyang’s comment, the public’s rising awareness of sexual harassment is laudable in China today, which had previously denied the problem consistently. Any action taken against such vile behavior in society is praiseworthy. You can change a person’s actions, but it is hard to change his or her thoughts. Therefore, the priority carriage, while not revolutionary for women, is an improvement.

Its actual effectiveness

During Christmas break, I returned to China. I went to several places, and once I took the subway. I saw the “priority carriage for women” sign inconspicuously marked at the gate. When I got into the carriage, I saw fewer people than usual at peak time, only 5- 6 people standing, 3 or 4 of them women.  There were also a few pink signs saying “priority carriage for women” inside the carriage, and in the carriage 20 to 25 males were seated, and while I was standing there for 30 minutes, not one of them offered me a seat. But this is not a rare situation: ironically, there have been several reports of more men than women in the priority carriage for women. What has the subway company done to prevent this? To answer this question, I contacted the subway company, and their response was that the priority carriage for women is not mandatory, only a promotion. As mentioned earlier, the subway company makes little effort to advertise the priority carriage. If people are not aware of this situation, how does this policy actually benefit women?

The subway company could make this more effective by making the signs more prominent, or by letting the subway staff tell those men who are seated that they should respect women and give up their seats for them. For any social change to occur, someone has to blow life into the efforts already put in place to protect women.

Subways are just a small part of everyday life for women

 There have been debates about whether establishing priority carriages for women was another example of discrimination toward women in society, since nowadays we are promoting gender equality, or the phenomenon that men and women are equal in all aspects, rather than being separate but equal. However, what is most important?  

We should look through the policy itself to the vital problem it reveals with society: eliminating sexual harassment against women in public transportation.  When we recognize this issue in society, a difficulty that many women in China face, we should create changes to their situation. When we promote gender equality, we should examine and try to solve the problems that cause the inequality. The subway is just one place where women encounter sexual harassment, yet the work done to eliminate harassment there may just encourage an end to sexual harassment in other areas.

There is still a lot of work to do to achieve our goal, of a world with no more crime and gender discrimination, where women and men are all able to achieve their dreams.