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Mumbai Local, Ladies' Special

In many urban areas around the world, the railway system is the city's lifeline, and this is certainly true for Mumbai. What can we learn about safety from passengers on the Mumbai Local?

Photo of Karolle Rabarison
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Trains have always captivated me, and I've developed a particular affinity for the Mumbai Local. There's something about being an air-sucking speck among the 8 million Mumbaikars commuting by train every day. (That's 2x the daily ridership of NYC's subway system.) 
When moving to a new city, one of the many things you have to learn is what I like to call train culture. In Mumbai, train culture varies slightly according to the compartment you're traveling in: first class, second class, general, or ladies'.

I am convinced the best place to learn about what it’s like to live in this city—including, for this challenge, how we might make areas safer and more empowering for women and girls—is the ladies’ compartment on the Mumbai Local. All life plays out here. In one corner are three women sifting through trays of jewelry and hair clips as if shopping were a competition. Seated on the floor are two others shelling peas. Squeezed on a bench across the way is a gaggle of teenagers commuting to college, each balancing a notebook to finish the previous day’s homework. Here ladies eat, work, pray, nap, shop, and occasionally get into full-on physical fights. Most importantly, here ladies talk—about everything. 

As part of this research phase, I'd like to chat about safety with the men and women who make their way around Bombay by train and update this post accordingly. Among a million other thigns, I wonder:
  • What can we learn about safety from the women who travel on the Mumbai Local?
  • How does the perception of "safety" differ from line to line, station to station?
  • What are examples of situations when men have felt unsafe on the trains?
  • How might we encourage fellow commuters to look out for each other's safety, especially at night?
  • Do ladies' only compartments and the Ladies' Special (a whole train for women only) make trains safer for women or reinforce gender imbalances?

Tidbits, preliminary observations from my own experience on these rails.
  • Ladies' second-class would be a far better space to learn and interrogate than first-class. 
  • I do feel more comfortable in the ladies' only compartments. In a perfect world, trains would not need to be segregated, but I can't deny that I am thankful that they are. Friends with whom I've discussed this feel the same way. They would be much less likely to commute by train in the absence of the ladies' car or the ladies' special.
  • For every male train-groper, public-masterbator, and catcaller out there, there are thousands other men riding these trains who are looking out for the safety of women and girls (and everyone). 
  • There's an unspoken sense of safety in numbers. Both during the day and at night, I've seen women shift cars if the one they're in empties at a station. 
  • Officers travel in both first- and second-class ladies' at night for added security, but their presence doesn't affect women's behavior.

Note: I started to write about the above points in detail, and it turned this post into a 1000+ word stream-of-consciousness storytelling sort of ramble. So! For the sake of keeping this contribution digestible, I shifted those bits to my personal blog ( here) for those who want to read more.

Enough of that. Here's where I'd love your input.

What questions might be useful to ask frequent passengers of the Mumbai Local?

If you live in Mumbai and have experienced the trains, what have you observed about passengers' behaviors that might be relevant to this challenge?

If you're not in Mumbai but live in another urban area with a popular rail system, what behaviors have you observed that might be relevant to this challenge?


Join the conversation:

Photo of DeletedUser


Hi Karolle, i have been travelling in the 2nd Class compartment of the Mumbai Locals since the past 10 years. I have recently started a blog which covers various aspects of the Ladies Dabba (in local Mumbai Lingo). Check it out if you please, it may be a repeat of what you have already covered, or you may also get some fresh insights.

Photo of DeletedUser


You can also check out my FB page specifically which will cover the Ladies Dabba.

Photo of Jamie Beck Alexander

Really loving this idea too, Karolle! Thank you for offering to bring all these passengers' voices into the conversation!

Two things I'd love to learn from frequent passengers are:

1) Are there women on the trains who become the informal leaders of the ladies trains/compartments - who for whatever reason other women look to for cues? If so, what is it about these women that make them natural leaders of the group? Are they elders? Younger women? What demographic? How might their behavior be modeled for other women?

2) Do you find that men 'fettishize' the women's trains? Are they targeted in any way? When I lived in Bangladesh, I joined a women's only outdoor walking group, but the whole idea of it being 'women only' was a bit defeated by the fact that men used to gather around the lake and watch us walk. Does this happen on these trains? If not, why might that be?

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Hi there, Jamie —

1. "Leader" might not be the right word. But there is definitely hierarchy / a schedule of superiority in these cars. First, as I started describing before, the second-class car is a much more friendly atmosphere than first-class. Though they also have "train friends," first-class passengers are more likely to keep to themselves, and they are hostile towards women who look like they may not be able to afford a first-class ticket—and go as far as to ask them to present a ticket, or shooing them out of the car. On many occasions, I've seen "second-class" women get into the first-class by mistake, react nervously as it dawns on them, and scramble to switch as the train pulls out of the station. There is also discrimination against hijras, who do ride in the ladies' compartment. I've been witness to instances when they travelled unbothered, but more often what I've seen is that people in the car glare at them or flinch/become uncomfortable when they board.

To me, the hostility and discrimination just goes back to society's ingrained idea of what an India woman should be / look like.

2. I recently learned about the "video coach" which refers to a general compartment abutting the ladies ' first-class dabba, giving men a way to "watch" (or, um, leer at) the women. People who have been riding Mumbai's trains for years would be familiar with this term, but I'm not sure if younger generations use it today. Watching aside, you'll find that some of the ladies' carriages have obscene doodles or crude writing on the walls (presumably done by men?)—I wouldn't say the cars are infested with these, but they definitely exist here and there.

Photo of DeletedUser


I loved this contribution, Karolle, thank you for it. I myself have been wondering about this subject in this contribution ( about women only cars in Brazil.
This post of yours (and the one about the train friend) really makes me glad the initiative seems to work pretty well in Mumbai. It bothers me how it doesn't in Brazil, and makes me wonder why... is it simply culture or is it the way its been implemented? From the video you shared on your post about the train friend, it seems men tend to respect women's cars, whether they're one of the gropers or the respectful and thoughtful towards women.
I think this could be a really interesting point to try to understand better, whether by asking men, learning about the consequences for those who choose to ignore the rules, hearing stories - if there are any - about it or simply by observing or letting us know more about your culture - if, after all, you think it could be the main difference between Mumbai and the large cities in Brazil.
I hope you can find something for us! :)

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Great questions! And I'm still thinking on it. Though I myself haven't seen men in these cars in all the times I've ridden the train, I know there are the occasional trespassers. I'm not sure why—in a country that's relatively lax with the rules, to be honest—people generally respect the ladies' compartment. I have a hunch it's a Mumbai, not India, thing though.

That said, if I were a man, I wouldn't be too keen to fight the ladies trying to get in these compartments. They are fierce, I tell you.

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Also want to add, men would be more likely to invade the ladies' car when it is less crowded. This is why people crowd in the second-class carriage late at night—no one wants to be by herself in that first-class car when rolling through stations in the dark. And there was an instance back in August when a woman traveling in the first-class ladies was attacked in broad daylight—it was an off-peak hour.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Karolle – here's a tip: with a number of people posting about womens only carriages from around the globe – you can help pull them into the great conversation you've started here via our Build Upon feature (which I see you've been using already) If you search for words like 'trains' 'carriage' etc there – it should bring up aligned posts which you can add. Sometimes I go back from time to time and see if there's new posts I can pull in. The bonus of doing this is that people who's posts you build upon will get an email notification – and are likely to come join the great conversation you've started here. Hope that's helpful :^)

Photo of DeletedUser


Hi Karolle!

As usual, love the thoughts you've shared. Some questions that occur to me upon reading your post:

1. Why do women take the train? Is it safety? Community? What other aspects of the train appeal to them past the immediate obvious ones, and how does it possibly tie into the greater concept of what safety means?

2. How do women personally describe their experience riding trains? So basically, what are their train "rituals" or habits? Stream of consciousness is such a fascinating way to find out more.

3. Generally, are women traveling alone or do they still try to travel with someone they know?

4. What is the male perspective of the trains? And also, how do they personally assess safety on the trains?

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Great questions, Eugenia! More and more it's looking like I am the expert word-vomiter, and you are the expert crafter-of-questions, nudging my thoughts into some kind of direction.

Really looking forward to other inputs/ideas from you throughout this challenge.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Really digging your insights, reflections and provocations on this post, Karolle. A few years back when I was researching at Dharavi, I would travel there and back every day from Grant Rd Station. I too loved the relaxed atmosphere in the women's carriage, outside of peak times. At peak times I found these carriages more packed than mixed carriages and in fact that women were bigger pushers than men (though this may have been because when I rode the mixed carriages, I would project as much confidence and personal boundary as possible!) Part of me felt sad about the gender segregation of carriages – but I also often enjoyed the amicable experience on women's carriages. And I certainly dig your point that *many* men travelling by train in India are entirely respectable and respectful.

One question I'd love to know about if you're going to be interviewing are (alongside many of the great other ones you've raised above):

What other aspects of your life involve being separated from men? (this will help us grasp more about cultural norms) How does this make you feel?

Looking forward to hearing what you discover – and if others have suggestions here.

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Agree with you — women are definitely bigger pushers! A friend once said it's because this is the (only) space these women get to take out, albeit against each other, the aggression built up from being treated poorly everywhere else in the city. I'm not sure how true that is, but I do know this: If you want to know what a woman is made of, take her in a second-class ladies' car during the evening rush. It brings out the best and worst in people.

(Great question tip! Thanks!)