Women say they can do without metro telling them how to dress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


Shanghai subway authorities apparently thought they knew best what women passengers should wear when they urged them to avoid sporting revealing clothing, in the interests of self-respect and to avoid sexual harassment.

To drive its point home, the operator of the city's metro posted an entry on its official microblog that featured a woman passenger wearing a see-through blouse with her undergarments clearly visible. Such attire, the subway chiefs said, could make women subject to sexual harassment.

'There can be many perverts on the subway and it's hard to get rid of them, so respect yourselves please, ladies,' the June 20 entry said.

The posting has been condemned by women's groups and lead a wide debate among the mainland media and public about whether the subway management had overstepped its bounds. Was a dress code appropriate if it lead to fewer incidents of harassment?

The China News Service reported on Monday that two young women dressed in clothes resembling a burqa, the traditional attire for Muslim women, protested inside a Shanghai subway station with placards that read: 'We can be sexy, but you cannot harass us' and 'We want coolness, but not perverts'.

In a signed commentary in the Beijing News, Yao Jing wrote on Tuesday that there was no legally enshrined dress code for women, so the move by the subway was inappropriate.

Yao said the subway authorities were wrong in saying passengers brought harassment upon themselves by wearing too little.

'Sexual harassment is against the law and it cannot be justified whatever the reasons are,' he said.

'If we follow their way of thinking, are they going to say that people are robbed because they have too much money?'

Yan Xi, a commentator with Scol.com.cn, a Chengdu-based state news portal, wrote that male dominance in society pressures women to check constantly whether their image fits the parameters laid down by men.

'Every time a woman is harassed or raped, she is often required to undergo reflection over whether she brought the misery upon herself, if perhaps she behaved poorly. As a result, she will suffer the stigma of being associated with the sexual harassment she endured, while the perpetrators are often pardoned.'

While a growing number of young Chinese women no longer shy away from embracing their sex appeal, the heavy reliance upon attractive women in advertising and endorsements, which reduces them to little more than sex objects, has stirred unease in some quarters that such blanket exposure could lead to further attacks on women.

Citing police patrolling the Shanghai subway system, China Central Television reported on Wednesday that officers had received six complaints of sexual harassment in May alone. The number of incidents is believed to have prompted the subway operator to issue its recommendation on appropriate attire.

By late on Thursday, its advice had been reposted more than 16,000 times by internet users and attracted more than 7,500 dissenting opinions, but the subway operator stood by its advice.

The Shandong Business Daily quoted commentators as saying the subway operator had done nothing wrong by making the suggestion. Others said a certain dress code in public made common sense.

Another commentator said low-cut dresses, miniskirts and see-through clothing could be a trigger for sexual harassment. 'While we should condemn the perpetrators, should we not also re-examine the way we show off our bodies?'

A CCTV programme expanded the debate with a discussion of broader protection for women in public spaces. Wang Zhuo, a member of the Beijing Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference, reiterated his proposal to introduce women-only compartments on subway trains to fight harassment, as countries such as Japan and India have done.

However, Zhang Youde, a professor of urban public safety at the East China University of Political Science and Law, argued such a solution could not address the root cause of the problem.

'If we really want to solve the problem, we must cultivate a real sense of respect for women in the broader community, including women's body language,' Zhang said. 'Of course, there should also be legal protections for them.'