I first noticed these cars last week. I boarded one of these cars out of curiosity, but was disappointed to see that there were men inside. That’s odd, I thought. Then I noticed the fine print on the side of the car: “Segunda a Sexta, das 6h às 9h e das 17h às 20h, Exceto feriados, Lei Estadual no 4733/06.” (Translation: “Monday to Friday, 6am-9am and 5pm-8pm, except holidays. State law 4733/06.”).
The next time I took the train, I made sure to take it between these hours. As I got on the woman-exclusive car at the train station in Flamengo, I again saw that there were men already seated within. I thought.. Maybe I’m missing something? The following day, I got on at a different station — the Siqueira Campos station in Copacabana — and I saw a guard there. A few men tried to walk into the women-exclusive car, but he stopped them. I thought, oh that’s great! But then I realized that I hadn’t seen any guards at the Flamengo train station, and that’s why men were able to board the car there — and, most likely, in other train stations as well.
Kind of defeats the purpose of a women-exclusive car, doesn’t it..? So I did some research, and here’s what I found.
In early 2006 and in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), legislator Jorge Picciani wrote State Law 4.733/06, which dictates that the public train and subway operators of the state of Rio de Janeiro create women-exclusive cars for rush hour. At the time, Picciani was the president of ALERJ, the legislative body of representatives of the state of Rio de Janeiro. [1, 2]
In relation to this law, Picciani is quoted as saying,
“This is a sign that the House is concerned with the creation of a more just and generous society, and [this law] it will make it possible to combat whatever kind of violence. There is no greater violence than that which constrains and, consequently, restrains women from speaking out [against injustices].” 
I asked my Brazilian housemate if she had ever experienced sexual harassment on the subway. No, she said, but she had heard plenty of stories — mostly of men taking advantage of overcrowding during rush hour to get uncomfortably close to women, sometimes copping a feel or.. well, general lasciviousness, as you can imagine. She also thought that sexual harassment was much more likely to occur at the other end of the subway line — all the way up north, rather than where we are in Copacabana. She said, “I hate to say it.. but the neighborhoods are slightly poorer and less-educated there, and sexual harassment is probably a little more likely to occur there than here.”
Lack of Success and Initial Public Response
On April 24, 2006, O Globo (biggest Brazilian newspaper) published an article entitled “Men Fail to Respect the Women-only Law in Subway Cars on First Day it Comes into Effect” interviewing various men and women about the new law.
One woman is quoted as saying,
“Today was only the first day. With time, maybe men will come to respect the law, though I don’t think this will happen. Brazilians don’t obey laws.”
Another woman said she wished there were more:
“Sometimes you can’t afford to wait for the one women-only car, especially during rush hour… Ideally, there would be more of them available during the busiest hours.”
Men were interviewed as well, though the attitude was generally cheeky. One man said,
“A women-only subway car? Fine, I’ll leave, but I’ll take 3 women with me!”
“What if there was an openly gay man? Would he be able to use this car?”
Still another joked,
“There isn’t a more beautiful car in the station. Why would anyone want to sit elsewhere?”
Picciani was interviewed about his thoughts on the initial lack of success of his law.
“Today is the first day, and all new things require time and information before the desired result is achieved. I’m certain that we’ll get people to comply with this law. We will work together with the Commission of Transportation to resolve these issues, but I’m certain that women themselves will assert their rights.”
He went on,
“We have security guards guiding passengers on all of the subway platforms, and soon we will be releasing an audio system to do the same. I believe that, with the help of women themselves, there will soon no longer be any men in these cars.”
Let me just point out here that: A) There are not actually security guards on all of the subway platforms. I’ve only ever seen them in one station — the one at Siqueira Campos. And B) Even if women do assert themselves, isn’t it the job of the state to enforce the law?
In response to the general problem of overcrowding of subway trains, particularly during rush hours, he said,
“The overcrowding of subway trains demonstrates the necessity of this law, which will help protect women from the possibility of getting harassed. Though this law is necessary for our women, we also need to improve our conditions of transportation in general.”
Debate Over the Constitutionality of Women-Exclusive Cars
On April 27, 2006, the Public Ministry of the state of Rio (a group of independent public prosecutors) filed a public civil action (essentially, a complaint of injustice) against the public train and subway operators SuperVia and Opportrans, for “creating privileges.”  In other words, they believed women-exclusive cars to be unconstitutional by privileging one gender over the other.
On July 20, 2009, the case was dismissed by the State Court of Rio (the Tribunal de Justiça). [7, 8] Lawyer Bruno Magalhães agreed with the decision, asserting that women have a right to be protected from sexual harassment, and that this, itself, is a constitutional right under Brazil’s Penal Code. 
Insufficiency of State Law 4.733/06
Perhaps the core of the problem of enforcing this law is that the law itself does not dictate enforcement, nor does it threaten punishment for men who don’t follow it. I realized this as I was reading one woman’s complaint online, and MetrôRio’s official response to her complaint.
One woman’s written account online from October 2010:
Today at 5:30pm at the Carioca train station, several men were standing by the pink lines on the platform waiting for the women-only car. I alerted a guard, who simply told me “Ah, they won’t go into the women-only car..” ..and then all of them did.
In the car there were already men sitting down that didn’t even bother getting up to offer their seats.. not even for someone elderly, like me.. […]
When I got off at the Afonso Pena station, I complained to the clerk behind the glass, who simply responded that he would pass my complaint along to his team supervisor.
I also called the 1-800 subway station number, and registered my complaint. Nothing worked. For those that are ill-mannered, laws must be followed. There must be a way to do this..
The response online from the subway operator MetrôRio was totally unhelpful. Here’s my translation of their response:
Thank you for contacting us and for choosing our services.
Regarding your complaint, we’d like to reference State Law 4733/06, on March 23, 2006, which dictates that we are responsible for creating a women-only car between the peak hours of 6am-9am and 5pm-8pm, excluding weekends and holidays. In compliance with this, MetrôRio has installed the appropriate signage, in pink, within the women-only car as well as on the platform. Additionally, our employees are trained to direct men not to get on the women-only car. Furthermore, we’d like to mention that this law is intended to educate, rather than punish.
We are available for more information.
MetrôRio Customer Service
In other words: “We’ve already complied with the law, there’s nothing else we can do. Furthermore, we’re not about to punish men for disobeying this law, as it’s only meant to ‘educate’.”
In a sense, MetrôRio has a point: The law itself simply asks public train and subway operators to create women-only cars — not to enforce that only women can use them.
Here’s a link to the actual text of State Law 4.733/06, in Portuguese of course, and here is my translation of State Law 4.733/06:
State Law 4.733/06 (Effective March 23, 2006)
- Article 1: Companies that administer the train and subway systems in the state of Rio de Janeiro must designate cars exclusively for women between the peak morning and evening hours.
- Section 1: Peak morning hours are defined as 6am-9am, and peak evening hours as 5pm-8pm.
- Section 2: These women-only cars should be highlighted with the appropriate signage, at the discretion of the train/subway operator.
- Section 3: Outside of these women-only cars, all other cars can be used by both genders.
- Section 4: Article 1 does not apply to weekends or holidays.
- Article 2: These companies have 30 days to adhere to this law.
- Article 3: By not following Article 1 of this law, companies will be fined 150 UFIR. (If the
- Article 4: This law is effective on the date of publication.
As you can see, MetrôRio is quite right. This law is totally useless in that it simply dictates the designation of women-exclusive cars, without dictating the enforcement of their use. This law neither punishes men who use women-only cars, nor does it ask train and subway operators to enforce it. The result is clear: Men continue to use these women-only cars like any other car, and the average woman in one of these cars is powerless to do anything about it.
Just this month, Globo reported on this insufficiency of the law and how it is creating problems. Violence against women continues to occur on public transportation, even within women-only train and subway cars.
Globo interviewed a bystander who witnessed a man threaten a woman within one of these cars,
I was inside the car when a man came in, in Realengo. A woman got up, ordered him to leave, and the man started to come at her with his middle finger up. They had to restrain him.
In March 2009, another woman was mugged at knife-point in one of the women-only cars on a train operated by SuperVia. She consequently filed a lawsuit and is currently awaiting R$ 18,000 (about $9,000 USD) in compensation from SuperVia.
The issue at hand is that train and subway companies do not feel that the law sufficiently provides them with the support needed to enforce women-exclusive use of these cars. Globo quotes MetrôRio as saying that they cannot use force to make men leave women-only cars because the law gives them no right to do this.
A Formidable Critique
My favorite critique of this law so far comes from Helena Costa (her opinion piece here, published in April 2008), who points out that by simply relegating women to one car on the entire train, the law is effectively punishing women for using public transport. In other words, the law sends the following message: “Don’t want to get sexually assaulted? Go to your women-only car (of which there is only one, and you might not even be able to fit during rush hours)!”
I, myself, will not enter the women-only car. Because my right to come and go must be respected, no matter what space I am occupying. Because I will not allow myself to be confined. Because what I need is to have the help and support to be able to point out the fool who has treated me injustly, because nothing gives him that right. This kind of injustice will only stop when there is no more silence, but loud shouting and justice. And each woman who speaks out against injustice, to whatever degree or of whatever kind, helps to undermine this sordid culture that thinks this is “normal” and that “it’s better not to make a fuss, because that looks bad.” Every woman who speaks out rejects the place of ‘passive’ victim’ and becomes, instead, the subject of her own history. And each one of these women who has the courage strengthens us all.