Sexual harassment on public transport: not just London

Why is Project Guardian so London-centric?

Back in March, on International Women's Day, Ellie Cosgrave danced out her anger on a busy London Underground train. The reason for her brave, unusual protest? A couple of years previously, a fellow passenger had pressed his erection into her from behind on the very same packed Northern Line carriage, leaving her with semen running down her legs and an anger that only intensified in the months that followed.

It's an anger that many women travelling on the UK's trains and buses must share; sexual harassment and intimidation of women is a pervasive but relatively undiscussed problem on public transport systems all over the country. The reason the issue has remained so well-hidden from crime statistics and public debate is clear – like Ellie, many women feel obliged to downplay these incidents in their immediate aftermath, and aren't at all confident that they'll be taken seriously if they do report their experiences to the police or transport authorities. The most recent Transport for London safety and security survey paints the picture in numbers: around 15 per cent of London's female public transport users have experienced '"unwanted sexual behaviour" on the network, it found, but up to 90 per cent of those affected didn't report the incident to police.

The British Transport Police is hoping to address this startling disparity between sexual offences and the frequency with which they are reported with its recently-launched Project Guardian scheme in London. The project, which was developed with input from campaign groups Everyday Sexism, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Hollaback UK, aims to increase public awareness of the problem and bolster women's confidence to report threatening sexual behaviour, as well as spearheading a more proactive policing strategy.

The BTP faces an uphill battle to implement an effective anti-harassment strategy, in London or anywhere else. From a cultural perspective, the unspoken assumption by many authorities and members of the public that women should either find unwanted attention flattering, or change their own behaviour to avoid being targeted, needs to be rigorously challenged. Transport authorities in Beijing were the latest to fall back on this victim-blaming messaging earlier this summer, when officials advised women to avoid wearing short dresses on public transport, or even "shelter their bodies with bags, magazines and newspapers" to prevent sexual harassment.

"We don't want anyone to have to change their behaviour to prevent becoming a victim," Inspector Ricky Twyford of the BTP told me recently. "The only people whose behaviour should change are those who are perpetrating this activity."

Another major hurdle is that much of this kind of behaviour doesn't actually constitute a criminal offence. It might not be illegal for a man to sit directly next to a woman on an empty carriage at night, openly staring, but it's certainly an intimidating experience that puts many women off travelling alone after dark. The BTP hopes that increasing the rate of reporting will help officers build a more detailed picture of all incidents, major and minor, so that officers can be deployed to provide visible reassurance, even if arrest isn't an option.  

Since Project Guardian's London-centric launch, many have understandably asked why this national issue isn't being addressed with a nationwide campaign. Certainly, sexual harassment needs to be highlighted on trains and buses all over the country, but a major pilot project on the UK's largest urban transport network is a good start that will hopefully serve as a springboard for a national discussion. Of course, the goal of any sane society should be to challenge and gradually overturn a prevailing culture that shrugs its shoulders at the casual harassment of women on our public transport and in our public spaces, and focuses on victims' behaviour rather than that of their abusers. Sadly, that process will be a long and arduous one, but it's encouraging that public authorities are starting to recognise the problem, and that there are courageous individuals like Ellie Cosgrave who are willing to dance their defiance against the status quo.

For the full article on Project Guardian: http://www.railway-technology.com/features/feature-project-guardian-sexual-harassment-public-transport/

Project Guardian aims to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue