A subway car in Guangzhou, where 'women only' carriages are being tried. Photo: iStock
A subway car in Guangzhou, where 'women only' carriages are being tried. Photo: iStock

When I lived in China, one of the first major differences I noticed from life in the US was how safe I felt walking down the street. I almost never got cat-called (calls of “foreigner!” were another matter) and the only stranger who ever touched me without my permission was a little old lady tugging on my sleeve to tell me to dress warmer so as not to catch a cold.

At first, I assumed that street harassment was simply not something that Chinese men did. Now, with news of self-defense flamethrowers and “women only” subway cars making the news, it seems clear that street harassment is a very real issue in China, just as it is in the United States and many other countries.

My status as a foreigner may have shielded me from the brunt of it, but millions of Chinese women deal with it every day, and the latest trends to protect them don’t seem very effective.

Last month, reports of a small flamethrower being marketed as a self-defense item for Chinese women began filtering into English-language media. The reaction abroad is mostly general bemusement and jokes, while the flamethrowers seem to be selling quite well in China, despite some dubious legality.

Marketed as “anti-pervert”, the devices are designed to fit in a purse and can shoot 50 centimeters of 1,800-degree-Celsius flames. Sellers claim that they are legal, as they are meant only to disfigure, not kill, an attacker. Chinese police, on the other hand, say that they are illegal to ship or use.

Critics warn that the flamethrower is much more likely to harm the owner than anyone else, if, for example, it accidentally gets activated in her bag. Others say it will be used by disgruntled lovers for revenge rather than its intended purpose. The ad itself seems weirdly sexualized to me. Is this a weapon or a dating site?

My main issue with it, however, as with all other suggestions that arming women will prevent harassment, is that it places the onus of self-protection on the woman, while doing nothing to tell men not to harass. Carrying a self-defense tool, be it pepper spray, a Taser, a tactical pen or a mini-flamethrower can give women confidence to walk the streets without panicking, but it is not a permanent solution.

Some Chinese cities have proposed another, less violent solution: Since public transportation is a major site of sexual harassment, why not set aside a certain carriage of the subway just for women, where they can feel safe?

Following in the footsteps of countries including Brazil and Japan, southern China metropolises Guangzhou and Shenzhen rolled out a trial run of these gender-segregated subway cars this summer. The timing is a direct result of a perceived increase of sexual harassment in summer months as women wear lighter, more revealing clothing to suit the weather.

Some critics think the move is unnecessary, as only 74 case of sexual harassment have been reported on the Guangzhou subway system since 2015. While this number is indeed lower than in other areas, it does not take into account unreported incidents, and in any case even one incident is one too many. According to a 2012 poll by China Daily, 13.6% of more than 9,000 people polled online admitted to experiencing sexual harassment on the subway.

Other opponents claim that the new measures are ineffective because they are not legally binding. Men traveling with female companions, or indeed any men at all, can sit in the “women only” car with no repercussions.

The most concerning response that I saw, however, was this: One Weibo commenter voiced worry that any woman who chooses not to sit in the special women’s compartment will be viewed as asking for harassment. Having chosen not to take the proper precaution, for whatever reason, any treatment such women receive will be seen as deserved. I believe this is a very valid concern.

Both the flamethrowers and the women-only subway cars place the responsibility for preventing harassment on women’s shoulders, while doing little to educate men or the population at large about the issue. It is the woman’s job to purchase the flamethrower, remember to carry it around with her, get to it in time. It is her job to seek out the one subway car set aside for her gender or else become fair game anywhere else.

Furthermore, these efforts maintain the false narrative that sexual harassment and assault only come from perverts on the street, while studies show that they are much more likely to be perpetrated by a person known to the victim.

In China, workplace harassment is a particular problem. According to the Harvard International Law Journal, 80% of Chinese women have experienced harassment in the workplace, as opposed to 50% in the US.

Last, these measures harm both sexes by portraying women as weak and in need of protection and men as animals who cannot behave civilly and control their sexual urges.

Flamethrowers and special subway cars are only stopgap measures to try to impede sexual harassment, rather than solutions that attack its source.

The best way to combat sexual harassment is to let women advocate for themselves and to hold harassers responsible for their actions. Unfortunately, the Chinese government is distrustful of activists.

Five young Chinese women known as the Feminist Five were arrested in 2015 precisely for taking action against sexual harassment on public transportation. They had planned to hand out fliers on International Women’s Day to raise awareness about the issue but instead found themselves jailed for more than a month.

Likewise, an activist group in Guangzhou, one of the cities now with women-only subway cars, found their attempts to put up billboards in the subway about sexual harassment repeatedly blocked, despite having raised the money to purchase the advertising space. This seems a little hypocritical of the subway organizers who claim to value women so much that they put aside a special car for them.

In Washington, DC, the metro is full of posters that validate victims of harassment with messages like “You deserve to be treated with respect,” while providing instructions on how to report an incident. It would be nice to see posters like that in China as well.


I would also like to see more of a concerted effort to educate the general population (including men) about such things as what counts as sexual harassment and what to do as a bystander if you see it happen. There need to be resources for women to report incidents without fear of repercussion and a societal norm that holds the perpetrator accountable rather than the victim.

I know we’re not always there yet in the US, either, but that is the goal to aim for.

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.

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