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Finding solace in Delhi's women-only subway car

Passengers ride a Bombardier metro train in New Delhi on April 14, 2010. The women-only subway car offers a much-needed reprieve for weary commuters, reports the Globe's Stephanie Nolen.

Charla Jones For The Globe and Mail/charla jones The Globe and Mail

Today's regularly scheduled blog post, on matters of great geopolitical and economic import, has been usurped by a love letter – to the Ladies' Car on the Delhi Metro, from which I am now writing.

The metro is in and of itself a wonderful thing, a thing that always works in the Indian capital: on time, reliable, efficient, tidy, cheap, and many other adjectives one virtually never otherwise uses here. This evening I left an interview for a Report on Business story deep in the heart of Gurgaon, the vast new city on the edge of the old capital where skyscrapers erupt overnight from the dust. I had to get back to the Globe bureau on the other side of the city, and I was looking at at least a three-hour drive in rush hour traffic.

Instead I hunted down the metro station, the last one on the line, and waded through the construction debris to the station. There was a giant snaking line of men waiting for security screening – and six women in the women's line. That reflects India's shockingly low rate of female workforce participation, which is almost unchanged in 20 years, but tonight I didn't pause to think about that. Cursory search, slapped down 14 rupees, or about 30 cents, for a ticket, and I joined the human tide up the stairs in a vast, well-swept station. Already things were looking up, but the best bit was to come.

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I walked to the head of the platform, where big pink stickers on the cement read "ladies' car." Moments later the train arrived, and I boarded what is, by local standards, a pleasantly uncrowded car (there is at least one more body per seat than you would have in Toronto. But that no longer seems weird to me) and I settled in for a most enjoyable trip home.

The car was filled with young working women. Ruhi, on my left, was reading the info packet for the conference on health insurance her new company is sending her on. Sarita, on my right, works in the back office for a big American financial company. She texted wildly with her boyfriend, a "possessive but sweet" engineering student, for her entire ride. The woman in front of me used her phone to talk a disorganized boss through finding some files, deferentially addressing him as Sirji, but rolling her eyes.

Every car on the Delhi metro has a women-only car: their purpose is to thwart the sexual harassers who make bus commuting or even walking on the sidewalk a constant unpleasant gamble for women here, and are a chief reason why many people don't want their wives or daughters to work outside their homes. Ideologically, I chafe at the idea that women need their own metro car – but in practice, I love riding in them.

The men's cars – that is, the rest of the train – are silent, sullen places. The women's cars are always full of conversation. Children, including mine, get communally parented. I can always draw my fellow passengers into interesting conversation, about jobs and husbands and the latest antics in parliament. And something about this feminine space means I don't feel silly asking fashion questions, and can get advice on the latest salwar style.

Almost every time I ride in the women's car, men attempt to infiltrate. Usually they are young, in pairs, and openly leering. Their presence tends to cut off the chatting. The city police are on a campaign this week to hunt them out and fine them – R200, or $4 – but often the ladies act before the police ever have to.

Usually it is a young woman who first confronts them, points out they are in the women's car. But if they don't shove off immediately, the aunties, as they are known here – sturdy older women – get in on the act, and physically chase them out. Then the passengers exchange satisfied smiles. In the absence of aunties, I did the challenging once – in my creaky Hindi. I got a small round of applause when the interloper slunk off. It may have been my happiest moment in India.

A friend of mine, also called Ruhi, told me she refused -- on feminist principle -- to ride in the ladies' car when she first got a job on the metro line. But then she did it once and never went back. "It's fun," she says, "and it smells better."

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail. After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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