When I was in Japan last week, one of the most interesting things I discovered was that on practically every train we rode on (and we rode on a buttload of trains), there were always several cars designated for "Women Only".
Washington Post, the Korean government is planning to designate several subway cars for every train in Seoul as "Women Only". The article says that sexual assault is three times more likely to happen in Korea, which certainly makes me question my perception of Korea as a one of the safest countries in the world. (Here, James at the Grand Narrative discusses groping in Korea and how it is being addressed by authorities).
Korea is a very gender-segregated society--women and men attend separate classes all the way through high school (and often through university)--which I'm not sure is entirely healthy in a sociological sense. However, I am a definite supporter of this new initiative. I rode the women only cars a few times when I was in Japan and I was shocked by how different it felt. I felt like far fewer people were staring at me, and I didn't think twice about sitting down next to someone. Usually, if I am on the subway in Seoul and there is one open seat next to an older Korean man or a Korean man who looks especially drunk or sleepy, I will elect to stand, thank you very much.
I personally have never been assaulted while on the train here. However, last year while I was with a big group of friends walking down a set of stairs while transferring, an older man going up the stairs "bumped" into me and very deliberately grabbed my crotch. I shouted out loud in English HEY THAT GUY JUST GRABBED MY CROTCH since I was surrounded by English-speaking friends and felt pretty comfortable calling that shit out. Truthfully, I wasn't too scandalized and at the time the whole thing seemed pretty funny, though maybe I wouldn't have felt that way if I had been alone. Because I was with my friends, they all rallied to my defense and lambasted the perversion of old Korean men, which felt good--I was glad they were there when it happened. In retrospect, I probably would have shouted something in Korean too--maybe "변태" (byeontae), which means "pervert" (a word I have come to find is extremely useful when you are a teacher of high school boys^^)
Now that I live relatively close to an entertainment district here with a pretty rowdy bar street, I am finding I have to be more careful when I walk to school here in the morning, when many people are stumbling home from a long night of drinking. I was taking a shortcut down an alley of sorts when I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye, who seemed to be waving, trying to get my attention. I looked to my right and a younger looking Korean guy was standing between two buildings with his pants down and hands around his man bits. He looked me in the eyes and waved his Johnson at me directly, after which he beckoned me with his finger. I immediately looked away and hurriedly walked away as fast as possible.
I was a bit more traumatized by this one just because it happened to me when I was alone. I got to work right after it happened and I felt like I couldn't really talk to any of my co-workers, so I took to the Internet to tell all my friends on Skype OHMYGOD SOME KOREAN GUY JUST WAVED HIS TWO INCH WEINER AT ME. I read this story on Jezebel about something similar that happened to one its writers in New York (it popped up on my RSS feed the day of the Korean Dong Flashing, happily enough). It inspired me to draft this post after it led me to Hollaback! (an incredible web-based initiative to end street harassment).
Though I still fell very safe in Korea most days, it is certainly is no oasis. Unfortunately, there are 변태s everywhere...hopefully this new subway initiative will make women Seoulites feel a bit safer.