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Why TransMalaya’s bus segregation has little to do with protecting women

Long-haul bus operator TransMalaya Ekspres has been practising gender segregation in its buses since February 2015 before it was featured by Berita Harian yesterday, and subsequently Malay Mail Online by following up with Noorlini Ramli, the owner and co-founder of KRZ Management Sdn Bhd that manages the fleet.

The revelation was met with outrage over the spill of moral policing into the transport industry that would also affect non-Muslims, reminiscent of segregated check-out lines in Kelantan.

The outrage however was mocked by among others Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), who claimed it contradicts liberals and feminists’ goal of protecting women. It also became the subject of a webcomic by VulpineNinja (which itself does not reflect the exact facts of the case).

Supporters of the policy lambasted critics, believing that it protects women from sexual harassment, which was backed by Noorlini’s claim:

“The point of this is to give an advantage to our female passengers because we have heard and read reports of how female travellers get molested by strangers, so we took this effort to give them a greater sense of security and comfort.

“This is for both Muslim and non-Muslim. We simply want to avoid any untoward incidents.”

Is it, though? While there is undeniable intent that the policy is meant to ensure women’s safety, it reeks much more of moral policing.

Noorlini explains it best as to the motive behind the policy (bold parts mine):

“I used to travel alone when I was a student at UiTM Jengka, and at that that time, I had to witness some couples behaving inappropriately in the bus in full view of other passengers and I had to sit beside a foreigner who started acting funny with me. “

TransMalaya also enforces the policy of putting unmarried couples right at the front, explicitly so driver can “keep an eye” on them. You are kidding if you say this is not moral policing.

If such a policy is meant to protect women’s safety, here is how some of TransMalaya’s policies can be implemented better:

  1. No need to segregate the whole bus. However, give the option for women to sit beside other women if they wish to, and accommodate their request even after the trip has started.
  2. Let unmarried couples sit together. How much more safer can it be for them to sit with someone they are close with, and with their own consent?
  3. Let lone women sit at the front so driver and conductor can help keep an eye on them, instead of putting all women to the right as an excuse for this (what if there are more women than seats on the right side?). As a safety precaution, not as an excuse to peep at couples and victimise them.
  4. There is also the solution of women-only buses instead of a segregated bus, but this too has its own problems.

[Any other suggestions? Leave it in the comments below.]

Making the conversation about women’s safety is obviously a red herring, and a strawman argument to lay the blame at critics of moral policing. It is clear what the TransMalaya policy is about — it has a right to implement, and for customers to choose it — but critics also have the right to call out its hypocrisy without being accused of overreacting.

Published inJournal
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