Women and Controversy Ride Together on Lady Bus ; Pink Women-Only Buses in Thailand Are Seen by Some as a Step Backward for Gender Equality in a Historically Chauvinistic Society

Article excerpt

The mammoth bus rumbles down a chaotic Bangkok street, stopping every two blocks for passengers. As it halts in front of a large shopping center, a bewildered-looking male tourist begins to step aboard. The conductor immediately blocks his path.

"No, no, this one's not for you. No men allowed," the conductor scolds.

Launched last month, Bangkok's new "Lady Buses," which are marked with large pink signs and carry only women, have proven popular with female commuters.

But the Lady Buses have also sparked furious debate among women's rights activists about whether Thai women - disparaged in an ancient Thai proverb as "the hindquarters of the elephant" - are really gaining equality in a historically chauvinistic society.

After discovering that pickpockets were disproportionately targeting women on public transport, the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) on May 30 began operating the Lady Buses, which its director told local reporters "would free women from sexual harassment and pickpocketing on buses." Since their launch, most Lady Buses have been standing-room only, according to the BMTA's director.

Anecdotal evidence appears to back that claim.

Several Thai feminists have welcomed the buses, saying that they show the BMTA's concern for women and demonstrate that females are being recognized as equals in Thai society.

The Lady Buses are a positive development, since they show people "are realizing that women are important members of society ... and are thinking about women's needs and requirements," says Supatra Masdit, who led the Thai delegation to last month's United Nations conference on women in New York.

According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNDFW), about 68 percent of Thai women are in the workforce, one of the highest figures in Asia.

A number of nongovernmental organizations devoted to women's rights have sprung up in Bangkok since Thailand implemented its 1997 "People's Constitution," a document that accorded greater freedom to civil society.

And if opinion polls hold true, Bangkok could have its first female governor - the most important state post - after next month's election. …