To Keep Women Safe, This Airline Won’t Give Them The Middle Seat

To Keep Women Safe, This Airline Won’t Give Them The Middle Seat

Maggie McCracken

But is that a good thing?

Solo female travel is both risky and liberating — that’s why it can be such a character-building experience. Sometimes, though, it’s not just risky: It’s downright dangerous.

One airline in India named Vistara is trying to change that with a new program called “Woman Flyer,” which promises “peace of mind” for solo female passengers. Among the perks of the program: Getting your luggage carried free of charge, and never having to take the dreaded middle seat.

I’ve traveled to 13 countries in North and South America, Europe, Oceania and the South Pacific, and have done so on my own with minimal risk to my personal safety. But if you offered me a free service that would handle my baggage at airports, help me get to my destination more easily and deter creepy men from making advances toward me, my initial response would be HECK YEAH, SIGN ME UP!

“On arrival, uniformed Vistara staff will be available at the baggage claim area, holding placards that read “#VistaraWomanFlyer Arrivals Assistance,” to assist female travelers with their luggage, the booking of airport-authorized taxis, as well as escort them to the taxi stand on request,” reports The Telegraph.

But let’s think a little more deeply about this program and what it signifies. By offering this service to women traveling alone, are we empowering them — or infantilizing them? And, equally importantly, what message are we sending to men and women alike about women’s role in travel?

The Need For Safe Passage

The program by Vistara is not really new or revolutionary. It’s the latest of many innovative programs that have been wrestling with the “problem” of women traveling alone.

I use the word “problem” purposefully. Though I travel for leisure, many women travel simply to visit their children, to see their parents, to attend school or for work. And this poses a problem. It poses a particularly big problem in countries like India, where in 2012, a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and murdered on a Delhi bus. In fact, women are advised by the Foreign Office (FCO) to “use caution” when traveling in India — yet for many women, traveling is not optional.

We’re not just talking about air travel here. Women have to deal with threats of harassment, violence and rape simply because they’re trying to make it to work in the morning. Now, governments and companies like Vistara are responding to the situation with programs that attempt to support women’s need to travel in spite of male-dominated violence toward them.

It’s not just Vistara that has implemented a program focusing on women’s safety and comfort. Air India also offers female-only seats, and cities like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Chennai have female-only train cars that help women navigate public transit more safely. And this extends to other parts of the world. Mexico City, too, famously has women-only public transit cars.

Empowering Or Infantilizing?

So let’s get one thing straight: It is FUCKED UP that the concept of women going about their daily lives is viewed as a problem by our governments and travel companies. But the reason female travel is viewed as a problem has nothing to do with women. It has to do with men, and there’s the rub.

By going out of our way to create programs that separate women from potential harassers, we are putting a BandAid on the larger issue of rape culture. In doing so, we create a society that believes women and men cannot peacefully coexist. And we know that, in fact, they can. While there are many horrendous crimes committed all over the world, there are also millions of women and men that co-exist peacefully and happily. The problem isn’t getting women out of the picture — it’s getting rape culture out of the picture, and that starts with educating men.

We need to refocus our attention on programs that help men change their attitudes toward women, not programs that remove an entire gender from public life.

It sounds idealistic to say if we just educated men to be more respectful toward women and to view their sisters as equals, women could travel safely. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Which leads me to the second reason I don’t believe women-only transportation programs are the answer: Women are empowered by learning how to take care of themselves.

Traveling by yourself forces you to develop a watchful eye for your personal safety. It allows you to learn directional and navigational skills that aren’t often required in your day-to-day life. It helps you engage confidently with people from all backgrounds and cultures. It helps you take ownership of your own safety and well being, because only you can get yourself to and from your destination safely. And, by default, it gives you confidence — confidence that you can take care of yourself no matter what obstacles are thrown your way.

Victim Blaming Vs. Safety Precautions

None of this means that victims of rape and harassment weren’t looking out for themselves well enough. Far from it. There’s a very fine line between empowering women to take ownership of their autonomy (“Be aware of your surroundings!” “Trust your gut!”) and subconsciously teaching them to resign themselves to rape culture.

As a frequent solo female traveler, I take a more middle-of-the-road approach. If someone advises me (not that they need to) not to walk around outside at 2 am in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I don’t view it as victim blaming. Is it unfortunate (and unfair) that I could be seen as a target in this setting? Absolutely. But is it also a common-sense safety precaution that I think young women should be armed with in order to keep themselves safe while still having fun? HELL YES.

So when it comes to “Woman Flyer” and other programs that aim to keep women safe, it’s not the idea that needs tweaking: it’s the approach. In cities like Delhi where there are high rates of sexual assault, it’s hardly unreasonable for women to desire public transit systems that protect them. In fact, creating these kinds of systems is a common-sense safety measure — for now.

But programs like “Woman Flyer” that take otherwise completely co-ed settings and reorganize them so as not to tempt male passengers into sexual assault or harassment? That’s not only unhelpful, it’s offensive to both women AND men. And don’t even get me started about offering to carry women’s luggage for free — I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own suitcase, thank you very much.

If I have a daughter someday, I’ll encourage her to travel as much as her heart desires. I want the world to be her oyster. I’ll tell her I learned invaluable lessons about myself — and about humanity — by taking trains across Europe. I’ll tell her that some of the coolest people she’ll ever meet are the ferry captains in Fiji. I will share with her that taking night buses across Peru, Chile and Argentina is the best way to learn Spanish in three month’s (and eat some bomb papa rellena while you’re at it).

And yes, I will also tell her to keep herself safe. I will encourage her not to party with people she doesn’t know very well. I will advise her that in countries that still have backward attitudes toward women, she should take public transportation options that make her feel safe. Common-sense advice is not victim blaming, and being independent and on your guard is ultimately good for women.

But the middle seat on the plane? Meh, that should be anyone’s game.