[Reader-list] Sixth Research Posting

Zainab Bawa coolzanny at hotmail.com
Thu Jun 24 21:56:00 IST 2004

Ladies Compartment, Women and Sexuality
Do we need exclusive spaces for women?

24th June 2004

This morning, I watched the film ‘Ladies Special’. The film is about the 
Ladies Special train service which has been introduced in Mumbai Rail 
Network since 1992 (on Central and Western Railway Lines). There are a 
couple of trains in the morning and couple in the evening exclusively meant 
for women to travel in. It becomes interesting then to compare the 
experience women have in the ladies compartment (numbering to about 2 and a 
half to 3 coaches) as against an entire train (with 9 coaches) for women 

The film ‘Ladies Special’ not only captured women’s experiences in ladies 
special trains, but also moved further beyond to capture lives of some women 
commuters on this train. The film covered issues relating to the 
contemporary working single women and working housewives. It spanned over 
the issues of marriage, love marriage, women not wanting to marry at early 
ages today, train groups and relationships which develop on the ladies 
special train, relationship between husband and wife, subtly changing gender 
norms, and innovations by women in traditions (an example of which was women 
forming the chain on Gokul Ashtami [Lord Krishna’s birthday] to break the 
handi [earthen pot containing butter], something which has always been the 
bastion of men).

What I felt particularly interesting about the film and connecting it with 
my observations on trains is how women express themselves in spaces marked 
for women only. One of the women in the film remarked in the opening scenes, 
‘poori train hamare liye hoti hai. Jahan chahe wahan baitho (The entire 
train is for us. Sit where you wish),’ indicating that there is no 
constraint of space. During the film, the camera captures scenes where women 
are singing freely on the train, a form of expression which I find vital for 
women. On the trains, you will notice women singing loud and clear. It is 
not only the women in the group who are singing; the singing bug spreads 
over to lone women standing near the door (singing and fantasizing 
simultaneously) and women in various other corners tapping their feet to the 
songs of the group. I find that when singing takes place in the ladies 
compartment, it provides a space for lone women to simply be lost in their 
most cherished fantasies. While I have not yet entered their minds 
(literally), their faces reveal that their fantasies are spread over ideas 
of ‘filmi romance’, (with a prince charming and Cinderella), dreams (of 
careers) which they have not been able to or hope (at some point) to fulfill 
in their lives, ideas of a peaceful and easier life. I do not mean to 
indicate here that their lives are full of sadness, but what I am intending 
to convey is that each one of us has fantasies (fantastic fantasies too!!!) 
which we hold and cherish in our lives (and our fantasies are perhaps what 
make life interesting to live).

An anonymous woman in the film makes a remark stating, “Our’s life is a very 
routine life’. She then went to state how the daily train journey is a break 
from the everyday routine-ness of women’s lives. In this respect, local 
trains seem to provide a strong value for women in Mumbai City.

The film also captured scenes of women sitting on the laps of other women 
(inspite of there being space for everyone to sit comfortably), women 
holding their female friends tightly while they are sitting on their laps, 
women with one of their arms circled around the neck and shoulders of female 
companions sitting next to them. These are expressions of affection, 
intimacy, joy and excitement. I have noticed these scenes when I watch women 
in the rush hours of the day. Circling one’s arms around one’s female friend 
appears to me as an indication of a very intimate friendship or expression 
of a kind of ‘sister fraternity’ or in the least, expression of some mirth 
inside. During one of my journeys to Kalyan in the peak hours of evening, I 
noticed a young girl who had circled one of her arms around her friend 
Joyce. She was talking to Joyce about certain very intimate issues like 
marriage in her family, issues concerning her own marriage, the boy in her 
life, etc. Joyce and she appeared to be friends for quite sometime. Joyce 
and the young girl were both part of a larger train group. That evening, 
Joyce had worn a saree and she was looking quite elegant. Everyone in the 
group remarked, “Hey Joyce, wearing a saree in this heat?” Joyce responded 
saying that that day was her wedding anniversary and hence the saree. Some 
women look really beautiful, graceful and elegant in sarees on the train. 
And I have seen how female friends comment on each other’s appearances 
openly, and at times make subtle sexy remarks, and have a great laugh 

Girls hold hands on trains, sit close and make intimate conversations, and 
express their affection for each other through physical gestures.

Trains seem to provide a space to women to be playful. Playfulness to me is 
an expression of sexuality and spontaneity. But, expression of one’s 
sexuality is strictly curbed in our society. During the opening scenes of 
the film, a woman on the camera states in Marathi, “From childhood, we have 
always been told to keep away from boys.” Upbringing, both for girls and for 
boys, is filled with conditionings about strict segregation of sexes. 
Notions develop in the mind about the opposite sex, what I call another 
other. And thereafter, the opposite sex, the another other, appears like 
some sort of a mysterious delicacy. While girls are brought up, their 
playfulness is not only curbed but is also often condemned. The statement 
accompanying the reprimand almost always is, “Girls are NOT SUPPOSED to 
behave like this”.

While in trains, women sing, celebrate occasions, and have fun, and to my 
mind, this opportunity to have fun is critical. While I was excavating train 
groups, one of the women in an interview told me, “I loved being with my 
train group. It’s like the train group is an addiction. We would celebrate 
birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions on the train between us. I 
wouldn’t care if my husband forgot to wish me on my birthday, but my train 
group should not forget and they would never forget!”

Women discuss personal problems in train groups. A quote from the film in 
this context was, “I can’t say that this woman or that woman is completely 
happy and satisfied in life. Everyone has one or another problem.’ She went 
on to say that on trains, women are able to discuss personal problems with 
their groups or at least forget their problems for a while and have a good 
time during the journey. Women in the film spoke about how they discuss 
fashion, trends and how it is important to ‘look good and presentable on the 

During my recent experiences in Delhi city, I observed that women are not 
playful in Delhi. There is a common expression which characterizes every 
woman at middle age (35-40). I cannot conclude very conclusively about women 
in Delhi, but am trying to imagine what would happen if separate meeting 
spaces were created for women in Delhi, spaces which are beyond shopping 
malls, where women have the opportunity to be themselves.

What is sexuality and what does it mean to express one’s sexuality? I have, 
through various experiences, come to understand that sexuality is about 
being comfortable with oneself – physically and mentally. To express one’s 
sexuality means to be spontaneous, to be oneself. Expression of sexuality 
does not mean ‘free sex’ or indicate ‘having sex with another man at the 
next opportunity’. Sexuality is about attitudes – attitudes towards oneself 
and towards others. It is about respecting one’s body and one’s self for who 
one is.

My experiences and observations on trains seem to indicate that there is a 
need for exclusive spaces for women. This need is characterized by need for 
‘separate, private space’. By this logic, I also conclude that there is a 
need for ‘separate, private spaces’ for men, where they can be with other 
men and live their innermost feelings and desires. When I was working in the 
craft sector organizing art and craft workshops for children, a married 
woman who had come to register her kids for a pottery workshop said to me, 
“My husband was suggesting that you should organize pottery and craft 
workshops for men too. He works in the banking sector and says that men need 
these opportunities too. They may not create something brilliant, but the 
space for them to use their hands, dirty themselves, have fun and a good 
time are important in today’s day and age.”

Definitely we need meeting spaces for men and women, but at some point, we 
also need these exclusive spaces to bond with the same sex. Hopefully, from 
here, we would be able to move beyond the oppression of gender roles.

-	Zainab Bawa

(Please be forthcoming in sharing your views, thoughts, and experiences 
about women in your city and various other cities on zainabbawa at yahoo.com)

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