The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The debate over Germany’s ‘sexist’ women-only parking spaces

A car in a German factory. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer,File)

Many people know that driving in Germany can be quite different from the U.S.: There is no general speed limit on most motorways, for example.

Perhaps more astonishing, however, is another distinctive feature: Many German parking lots are equipped with special spaces for women. In some regions of Germany, law forces parking lot owners to designate at least 30 percent of their space specifically for women.

Those parking lots are bigger than usual, which is supposed to make it easier for women to maneuver their cars. Some Germans like the idea, but others call it a sexist way of implying that women are worse drivers than men.

So, are parking spaces for women sexist?

Yes, but actually it's discrimination against men, German tabloid newspaper Bild suggested in a recent article. "Are men really not allowed to park here?" asked the paper, which until recently featured a naked woman on its front page and is Germany's best-selling publication.

Bild's agitation is as a contortion of facts, according to the paper's critics: If someone should feel offended by designated women's parking spaces, it should be women.

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Women's-only car parks exist in quite a lot of other nations, including Austria, Switzerland, and China. In northern China, a shopping mall inaugurated parking spaces last year that were about one foot wider than normal ones, and painted in pink. According to news agency AFP, a spokesperson for the shopping mall defended the decision back then, saying: "The fact that our women's parking spaces are wider is simply due to practical reasons and shouldn't imply that women are worse at driving than men."

In Germany, a similar debate has been going on for more than 20 years, but there seems to be no conclusion in sight. Last week, German news site The Local picked up the controversy, for instance, and asked its readers: "'Women-only' parking: sensible or Sexist?"

German first began using women's-only car parks in a bid to protect women from potential attacks. In the 1990s, an increasing number of women expressed their anxiety about using unlightened parking lots due to the possibility of sexual assault. Many cities established special women's parking spaces that were well lit and located closer to lively streets or buildings.

More recent police data suggests that the risks posed by dark German parking lots were exaggerated -- nevertheless, women's parking spaces are so deeply ingrained that few would dare to remove them.

"Today, nobody needs women's parking lots anymore -- especially not in the modern, lucid and well-lit shopping malls," reporter Werner Mathes argued in an op-ed for German weekly Stern. "In some Swiss cities, such as Zurich or Luzern, one has gotten rid of those spaces years ago, because parking lots are much brighter and better lit than in the past."

It's not obligatory for women to use those spaces, and supporters refer to the fact that there are also designated men's parking lots. However, those 'male' spaces are especially tiny and difficult to use -- which could be perceived as sexist, as well, some argue.

Since then, however, the original intention seems to have gotten lost. According to news site The Local, the mayor of a small town in southern Germany justified the creation of men's parking spaces in the following way: "We found that two places were not rectangular, at an angle to the road and placed between walls and pillars," he told German magazine Der Spiegel in a translation by The Local. "This makes parking difficult so we decided to allocate them to men."