Where the Women Rule

In one of the most quickly developing countries in the world, women still fight for equality. But on trains in India, there’s one place women can feel safe.


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A man in tattered clothing jumped into the car as the train lurched forward violently, sending him unintentionally crashing into a group of five women near the door. They radiated femininity in their colorful Indian outfits and ornate jewelry, but their soft faces contorted with fury as they unleashed unexpected hell onto this imposter. Suddenly the women were screaming and beating this man. As quickly as he had leapt onto the train, he was thrown off. The concrete platform seemed to do him no harm; he bounded up immediately and pursued the train, cursing the women who cursed right back at him.

From my seat, I watched the spectacle with wide eyes.

“It happens every day, on every train. Sometimes it’s a lot worse,” a lady wearing an elegant salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, sitting next to me said in a dialect of Gujarati, since my expression revealed that I hadn’t seen this before.

In the haze of the early morning heat, my mother and I waited for the Gujarat Express to arrive at the Vadodara city train station. Our relatives lived in the city of Navsari and the train was the most sensible and inexpensive option; every major city in the state of Gujarat could be reached for less than two dollars.

The platform grew crowded and my mother and I didn’t dare let go of our luggage for fear of sneaking, greedy hands. The morning heat began to reek of hundreds of sweaty city dwellers. Beggars held out their hands and mumbled incoherent wishes as they walked up and down the platform. Politicians and businessmen with rambunctious voices discussed the important matters on what they called “mobiles.” The daily commuters in simple button-down shirts and dark slacks quietly read the newspaper. Students chattered and gossiped in their social circles. It was a scene of forced coexistence, of tolerance for the sake of inexpensive transit.

The train rolled in, rickety and steaming from its journey on the eroding tracks. Suddenly everything became overwhelmingly chaotic. The stagnant mass of people rushed towards the car doors. We tripped and pushed our way to board with luggage that suddenly felt like bricks. The train was only a series of rusting aluminum boxes on wheels, with different classes separated through their distinct windows. The closed windows were for keeping the air conditioning in the first class boxes. The long bars that spanned the sides of entire compartments were for everyone else. As we neared the barred cars, my mother turned sharply and rushed to the final box.

The Ladies’ Compartment in Mumbai, India 

“The ladies compartment!” she said to me, as if she had remembered something obvious. I didn’t know such a train car existed. However, in the hectic moment, I heaved my bags onto the train and clambered on. This was the smallest of all the train cars. It was reserved for women only since “Ladies compartment” was etched on the grimy metal door in Gujarati script. Inside, there was only room for 20 women to sit comfortably on the eight benches that were split into four sections. In each section, the benches faced each other and shared a long window made of bars that never closed, not even during the monsoons. It was a curious decision on my mother’s part and I wondered why such a car even existed.

From the minute we arrived at the station, eyes met mine, eyes met my legs, eyes fixated upon my mother and her jewelry.

“Mom, you’re wearing too much gold,” I said to her as the eyes darted from ears to neck and back again. While that statement might have sounded strange in the States, it was normal in India. Gold is excessive in temples, synonymous with spiritual and monetary wealth. Everyone owns at a least one piece of jewelry made of the luxurious metal; it is a necessary accessory. But since theft is a huge issue in India, it is all usually locked away and fake replicas are worn instead.

“This is all fake, of course! Do you remember what happened to Ratna Kaki last year?” she told me, referring to my aunt.

Of course I remembered. Her mangal sutra, a gold chain dotted with black pearls signifying that a woman is married, had been snatched off her neck while walking on a busy street. This had not happened once, not twice, but three times. Fortunately she was wearing a fake necklace each time.

As we waited, I also noticed that men stared shamelessly at the women on the platform. My mother was wary of the stares despite traveling by local train many times in her school days. After spending many years in America, she was understandably unaccustomed to the stares now. As her daughter who had never been on a train in India, I exemplified my naiveté by wearing shorts. Unfortunately this is another, unexpected side effect of poverty. Smaller cities in India are notorious for sexual harassment and rape. Despite visiting India many times over the years, my grandmother has never allowed me to take a rickshaw or cab alone, even within city limits.

“Who knows where the drivers will take you? Do you hear what’s on the news?” she always said to me, but I always scolded her old-fashioned thinking and replied, “Have a little faith in people aaji!”

I was naïve. The headlines blared “Women Raped by Six in Delhi,” and “Sex trafficking at an All-time High in Mumbai,” and yet I wore Bermuda shorts to the train station. I had no idea how much unwanted attention I would draw to myself with such a choice. On the streets of small villages and even small cities, skin is bared at a minimum, eyes are cast downwards, laughs are stifled for the fear of drawing unwanted attention.

There has been much progress regarding sexual harassment, especially in the larger cities. Indian women have struggled incredibly over the years for educational and professional equality. They now have a strong presence in politics and are fighting for laws that set extremely harsh consequences for rape and harassment. The progress has, unfortunately, mostly assisted the upper classes and has yet to reach much of the country. While India is seen as a rapidly-developing economy, an overwhelming percentage of its population still lives in poverty. It is in the many impoverished pockets of cities where harassment is common and crime rates are high.

What happened to my aunt happened to grandmother recently as well. Both aging women were shaken from the experience. I can still imagine them rubbing the bruises on their necks from the force of a symbolic necklace being yanked off, in pain that was not only physical.

The same group of five women that threw the man out of the train car had earned a bit of respect and immediately assumed a position of authority among the rest of the women. Their hair was pulled back in tight buns and a few sweet-smelling flowers were pinned to the side. Their ears shone with many piercings studded with fake gold earrings. While usual saris are meant to flow like skirts at the bottom, their saris were tied in a way to make them more mobile. Small yet muscular, they were from a poor farming village and were used to working long hours in the fields.

They marched down the aisle, conceited in their newfound glory. In a space with so many women, catfights were inevitable. They approached an elderly woman who had been traveling overnight and had taken up a bench to sleep.

“We paid, so we want to sit!” the five said angrily, as they shook her awake. But the elderly woman had no intention of sitting up and making room. They screamed and cursed at each other until finally she sat up, rested her head against the dirty window bars and drew her shawl over her eyes. All five women sat on the bench with sighs of relief, complaining about aching feet. In this compartment smaller than my living room, everyone inconveniently had aching feet.

My mother and I luckily found seats since we boarded at an earlier stop. As the train picked up more passengers at local stations, I offered my place to those with “aching feet” written on their faces. At every stop the compartment became more cramped. The small space smelled and hadn’t been cleaned for quite a while, but its overcrowded situation was justified. In the other compartments, men smoked cheap cigarettes as a desperate coping mechanism, a majority contemplating how they’d be able to survive with such meager wages.

I hoisted myself onto the metal luggage rack that hung low over the passengers’ heads. Many younger passengers did the same on the other seven racks, and the little box felt more crowded than ever. I noticed the interactions of the women below and realized that something was different here compared to what was seen on the streets of India. The ambience was freer, unrestricted.

A mother and her two daughters dressed in colorful traditional garb and heavy gold jewelry were attending a wedding. They laughed freely and their eyes shone, lined beautifully with dark eyeliner.

“It’s our husband’s cousin’s daughter’s wedding in Navsari!” they said animatedly to everyone when they were asked who was getting married. I laughed; they were making such a long trip for a distant relative. But this is common in Indian culture. A wedding is an excuse to eat delicious food and dance to the latest Bollywood hits.

A pair of Muslim women in their hijabs kept to themselves, but bared their faces with a clear look of relief and comfort. The chatted occasionally in low, inaudible voices, but mostly sat in a relaxed silence.

College girls in jeans and polos conversed and cackled on the set of metal racks about their classes and the latest celebrity gossip.

“Salmaan Khan got arrested!” one said. Another put her hand over her heart and insisted dramatically, “But he’s too gorgeous to go to jail!” Their colloquial Hindi was occasionally interrupted with heavily-accented English slang.

Laughs rang out as gossip was revealed. Dialects of Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati were tossed back and forth. The social classes mixed and the clothing and choice of jewelry that everyone was wearing clashed. Everything about this train was different from any train ride I experienced in the states, but I was comfortable in this small, seemingly unbearable space. I belonged here because this car was built with a simple philosophy: Women deserve to be safe. It didn’t differentiate by social standing, ethnicity, or religion. Muslims and Hindus quarrel violently for they are two religions known to be tumultuous. But here they coexisted. Boarding the train from the poor farming villages to the comfortable bungalows of the city suburbs, these women shared the common comfort of traveling without the worry of the eyes of men wandering, without the risk of harassment.

I noticed my mother speaking enthusiastically about America with the five dramatic women that had caused the scenes earlier. They leaned forward, interested, to ask her questions. Their faces were once again soft and radiant, their defensive skillset subdued.

“This is my daughter!” she said and pointed up at me. “She has never been in a ladies’ compartment!” At this, they laughed and said to me, “We have to be strong here. We’ll hurt any man that messes with us.”

Despite hearing such confident words, I once again noticed how crammed the car had become with overflowing benches and legs dangling over luggage racks. I wondered why such a small space had been allocated to make these women feel comfortable.

The train chugged through a forest of banana trees, with leaves so large that villagers use them as makeshift plates. Past the Narmada River, one of the seven holy rivers of India, so sacred that people search for the Gods who are said to take human form on the banks. Past rice fields with dark-skinned, lean men and women knee deep in the water and bent over, meticulously making a living.

The compartment offered a brief pause from a daily worry. This is where the solo woman sat, where the elderly women rested her aching feet without the concern that her mangal sutra could be yanked off her neck. Only in the company of other women, they can be themselves. They can be confident. They can be stunning.  4 October 2013

Kanan Gole has written for Table Matters (on, ironically, her inability to cook) and The Smart Set, and enjoys writing about her Indian heritage and her travels. She currently works and writes in Pune, India.