(In) Rejection of the ‘Mahila’ Seat

-By Labisha Uprety

This article was originally published in The Himalayan Times on 30 August 2015.

For those of us do not own private modes of transport, Nepal Yatayat has more than proven its mettle in providing a generally reliable form of transportation. Now barring the over-the-top enthusiasm of most Yatayat conductors to compete with Auschwitz’s guards when it comes to stuffing people into cramped spaces, and the frequent groping and leering by middleaged uncles, the Yatayat has become a generic trademark for public buses in the capital.


But in more recent times, one scenario in the public vehicle scene has become increasingly common. Though women haggled for reserved seats previously, their pleas usually fell on deaf ears. Now however, the Metropolitan Traffic Police is bent on flexing its macho muscles and frequently runs random checks on buses and other public vehicles to see whether women are getting to use reserved seats or not. Men are harangued and shoved if found to be using the ‘mahila’ seat and ordered to ‘chivalrously’ give it up for women standing by. Now as a woman, one would assume that I am happy that these checks are happening and that I get to capture these seats once in a while, while also being saved from further harassment on the vehicle. Not quite.


It is interesting to examine the category in which women are being placed when provided with reservation on public vehicles. The Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act, 2049 (1993) of Nepal under sub-section 107, Reservation of Seats, states that “It shall be the duty of the owner or manager of a passenger heavy motor vehicle operating the transport service on a local route to reserve four seats for the disabled and two seats for female passengers in that vehicle”. An additional category is one seat for those above 60 years of age. The categorisation itself is telling. If this is an attempt by the state to offer safer travel to women, why is the same courtesy of shoving young people out of these seats rarely extended to the elderly and the differently abled? I am yet to see the police asking people to give up seats reserved for the infirm. In what has become the worst consequence of the mahila seat, young women are frequently seen ordering grey haired gentlemen and young children from their seats. I am no new witness to teenagers and 20 year-old’s snapping at old men. I have had one too many encounters when much older people hastily vacate seats at the sight of a female and even upon persistence that they could very much stay put, they stand up huffing and berate the conductor for their misery.


An explanation that is frequently given in defense of reserved seats for women is that they lessen occurrences of sexual harassment in public vehicles. Of course on crowded buses, with women standing, it is much easier for predators. In a 2013 World Bank report titled ‘Gender and Public Transport’, 33 per cent of women reported personal insecurity as one of the biggest problems when travelling in a public vehicle in Nepal; this being inclusive but not limited to “fear of pickpockets, personal injury as well as various forms of sexual harassment”. But is reserving four seats to be the end of this? Sexual harassment is as prevalent when a woman sits down as it is when she is standing. Numerous close acquaintances recount stories of horror of men putting their hands from between seat cracks to caress them. And which female is novice to the junk-rub on the shoulder when seated, really? Reservation of such kind is short-sighted and attempts to hide the problem from sight rather than address key issues. The point is not that one should be forced to give up seats for women or the elderly, rather one should be educated in a manner to give up seats for those who need it more than them. Women should not be excluded from this line of thought. They should also willingly give up seats for the pregnant, the old and infirm, the differently-abled and parents carrying small children.


In January 2015, Bagmati Transport Entrepreneurs Association came up with a women-only minibus service on the Kalanki-Balkot route to help curb incidences of sexual harassment against woman. While a novel idea in the country, the providers of the service have themselves claimed to be at a loss of what was to be done if women were travelling with their male companions. India too established a women-only bus service from Noida to Meerut following its well publicised lack of women’s security in public vehicles but have employed means such as trying to hire all-female transport teams (except the driver until yet) and installing ‘panic buttons’ and vehicle tracking systems to alert officials of misconduct. The attempt by Nepal thus seems half-hearted at best. The previously mentioned report states that revising infrastructure for public vehicles and making them more spacious and removing reservation criteria for women alone and instead allowing parents with children and the pregnant more comfort in travelling along with the general public should be the long term vision rather than the present ‘solution’. Such quotas only work in increasing the general air of mistrust between the sexes and do little good, if any.

Labisha Uprety is Communications and Development Assistant at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation.