Women-only train cars are in use in many cities — including Cairo, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur — but none are believed to be in the heart of Europe.
Now, in a highly controversial decision, a private German railway company wants to adopt the idea as well. According to Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, women-only carriages will be available on trains running between Leipzig and Chemnitz. They would be open to women and their children and monitored by a crew.
"This has nothing to do with sex assaults," broadcaster MDR quoted a company spokesperson as saying, suggesting that the decision was not related to recent fears about such crimes committed by refugees or immigrants. According to the railway company Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn, the measures were instead taken in order to convey a general feeling of safety to women on board their trains.
However, critics on social media have questioned the motives of a European company taking such unusual steps. The enterprise operates in a region where right-wing groups have gained support following the influx of refugees last year. Local media reported that there had been no increases in sex assault cases on trains in the region.
On New Year's Eve, dozens of men allegedly assaulted women at the main train station in the city of Cologne — an incident that raised worries in Germany about the behavior of male refugees and immigrants toward women. Several of the convicted perpetrators had foreign origins.
The repercussions of those assaults are still being felt in Germany, which has struggled to adapt to its new image as a major host nation for refugees in recent months.
Despite calls for increased safety measures for women, Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn has faced harsh criticism for its decision.
"In the long term, we need to work on facilitating integration and cannot deviate from our aim to reach a gender-inclusive society," Konstanze Morgenroth, the regional representative for equality-related issues, was quoted as saying by local radio station mephisto 97.6. "In such a society we don't need special shelters for women."
Although local residents interviewed by the radio station said they had felt unsafe on trains at times, many agreed that segregating men and women was not an ideal option.
Similar proposals have been made in other European countries in the past, including in Austria and Britain. In Austria, the idea withered more than a decade ago because of low demand for women-only carriages during a trial period.
The British debate is much more recent: Last August, Labour party politician Jeremy Corbyn said that women-only carriages could help reduce harassment.
"It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket," Corbyn was quoted as saying at that time. Corbyn also proposed a 24-hour hotline for women to lodge complaints directly to the police in cases of harassment or assault.
Possibly anticipating resistance to his plans, the politician stressed that he would carefully consider all arguments. "I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome," Corbyn said.
Months before Corbyn made the proposal, the researchers argued that such carriages "could be thought of as insulting, patronizing and shaming to both men and women."