For the past year I have been a daily commuter on Jakarta's public transport system, the Transjakarta busway. Given the alternatives — interminable and expensive taxi rides, taking a motorcycle into the scrum of unmoving traffic, enduring the snail's pace of old city buses that stop every few metres to pick up passengers — I've found the busway to be the best way to get through Jakarta's infamous peak hour.
For the most part, the buses have their own lane to travel in, they stop only at the designated boarding platforms, and though they don't run on a schedule, there is usually a steady stream of them coming past. Another benefit, which I'm more conflicted about acknowledging, is that the busway has a women-only section that makes my commute, and that of many other women in Jakarta, a whole lot less stressful.
When signs for a women-only queue started appearing in busway shelters a few years back, I didn't like the idea. I knew harassment was a problem, and had experienced my share of it as a consequence of being both female and foreign, but I didn't agree with separating the sexes as a solution.
I also saw it as a symptom of the growing religious conservatism often talked about in Indonesia. Moderate Muslims here tend to shake their heads at news of shariah-inspired bylaws in Aceh, such as a recent one in the district of North Aceh enforcing the separation of the sexes in schools and universities, or the plan to ban men and women who are not married from riding on a motorcycle together. Regulations like these tend to be seen by the moderate majority as an overly conservative interpretation of religious texts, and a potential loss of rights for women. But in the case of Jakarta's busway, sex segregation was portrayed as a way to to support women's rights.
Jakarta is the world's fifth most dangerous city for women on public transport, according to an international survey conducted last year. In a poll of 15 of the world's biggest capital cities plus New York, Jakarta ranked fifth for verbal harassment against women on public transport and sixth for physical harassment. While women in Jakarta were relatively confident that the public would come to their assistance if they were being harassed, they were far less confident that authorities would respond to a formal complaint. If it's any indication of the prevalence of harassment on the busway, the standard signs for 'no eating', 'no drinking' and 'no smoking' are joined by a sign that appears to communicate 'no lifting the skirts of fellow passengers'.
A survey by the Jakarta-based Institute for Transportation Studies (Instran) in 2008 reportedly found that around 90% of passengers supported sex segregation on the busway. Transjakarta in mid-2010 addressed this demand by providing men and women with separate boarding queues, while passengers still mixed on the bus. By the end of 2011, a women-only area at the front of the bus was introduced. Some advocates are still pushing for entirely separate buses for men and women.
Currently, the larger bus stops have one queue for men, one for women, and one for men and women riding in mixed company. Women occupy the front of the bus, men the back, and both men and women stand in the middle, though women are frequently directed to move from the middle to the front. Men sometimes stand in the front of the bus when they are traveling with a partner and children. At other times, when they try to enter the women's area, they are asked to move to the back by Transjakarta staff. The women's section is labeled as reserved for women only, while there is no sign for what is by default the men's section at the back of the bus.
With this policy in place, I have not experienced a single instance of harassment in a year of taking the busway on a daily basis. So why do I still feel conflicted about the arrangement?
For starters, I don't like the fact that the problem of harassment has been reduced to a problem of women standing together in public with men. This implies that mixed company carries a latent threat of harassment. It casts women as victims and men as perpetrators, which does little to cultivate healthy gender identities or relations. Harassment, not mixed company, should be highlighted as the real problem. Secondly, I don't like that the policy falls into the old trap of holding women responsible for preventing harassment. Women are expected to act responsibly by riding in their designated area of the bus, unless they are accompanied by a man. Meanwhile, men bear no responsibility other than to keep clear of the women's area. In turn, this implies minimal responsibility on the part of men if they are to harass a woman standing in the 'wrong' part of the bus.
Female friends in Jakarta who I talked to about the issue agreed, adding that harassment does not only happen between men and women, but within the sexes as well. But like me, they found the women's section on the busway to be an effective, if morally questionable, solution.
A 2009 study by Instran showed that the majority of people taking the busway are in many ways also like me: young women taking the bus to get to work. These women have the right to a safe daily commute, which the busway now provides. But they also deserve to feel safe in their workplaces, neighbourhoods and on the streets. That's the bigger challenge which sex segregation can't solve.