This Way, Gentlemen6 min read

Single-gender security lines at a Beijing train station – Neil Thomas


China boasts the world’s longest high-speed rail network. Its train stations, in kind, house probably the world’s lengthiest security lines. These lines are not genteel queues. Hundreds of anxious travellers, corralled by metal barriers that wind into a joyless maze, jockey for position in a passing eternity of squeeze, stress, and quite some sweat. I often arrive hours before my train is due to leave; such is my fear of getting stuck in line.

So I should have felt glad to save some time when, trudging through security at Beijing South Railway Station earlier this year, I encountered a sign I hadn’t seen before:

In blocky white characters on blue chloroplast – a hallmark of official signage across the PRC – the sign was for a line that branched off near the luggage scanners, and announced “Gentlemen Only Line.”

At first, I was convinced that I’d read the Chinese wrong. But the grateful strides of the lads in front of me, and the frustrated looks of the ladies behind, confirmed that I had become the unlikely beneficiary of preferential treatment. I went through the line, and made my train in time.

As I safely emerged from the security scrum, I couldn’t stop thinking about the strange privilege that I’d just been granted. Unfortunately, the station management at Beijing South does not publish its security guidelines online. But my curiosity drove me to ferret out some Chinese media stories about similar gender segregation policies across the country.

In 2016, airports in Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Shenzhen, and Wuhan introduced female-only security lines. The China Daily reported that these lines, marked by pink signs, would help women “avoid the embarrassment” of being checked by male security staff and “cut time spent in line” because “women usually need more time.” A representative of the official Women’s Federation said the policy “shows care” for women and not discrimination, “like increasing women’s toilets.” The People’s Daily, official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), added that female-only lines would not only “protect women’s privacy” but also “improve traffic efficiency,” because women’s cosmetics bags required “greater scrutiny” from inspectors than other baggage, presumably carried by men. Following similar logic, airports in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Shanghai have also implemented male-only security lines.

Opinion among ordinary Chinese about single-sex security lines looks mixed. While one woman told The People’s Daily that her female-only security check was “like a VIP service,” Chinese netizens complained that the system frequently created longer wait-times for women, caused undue stress for mixed-gender families, and was unnecessary or even offensive. As one commuter remarked: “The security check isn’t a bathroom, do we really need to split men and women?”

I wasn’t convinced either. In the absence of complaints from actual women – who already had the right to be frisked by a female guard – single-sex security lines appeared sexist. Like gender segregated bathrooms, they simply increased overall “efficiency” by letting men rush through faster while women queued separately. It seems that China’s transportation authorities may be suffering from straight man cancer. This unfortunate condition, first diagnosed by netizens in the mid-2010s, afflicts those who “belittle women’s value, harm women’s rights, and hinder the movement for gender equality.” Its rough English equivalent is “male chauvinism.” A classic example would be how men twisted the Chinese abbreviation for International Women’s Day, sanba (or 3-8, so named because it falls on March 8) into slang for “bitch.”

I always used to appreciate the sheen of equality at Chinese railway stations. Unless you were extremely privileged, everyone from rural peasants to urbane professionals had to wait for the train in the same smoky halls, on the same crappy seats, after the same interminable security check. But the “Gentlemen Only Line” brought to mind the Confucian ethical codes of imperial China, which expected women to observe the “Three Obediences”: obey your father before marriage, obey your husband after marriage, obey your son after your husband’s death. The character for “to obey”, cong, can also mean “to follow,” as in a line, so perhaps China can add a Fourth Obedience: “Follow men in the train station.”

Despite the tired Maoist cliché that “women hold up half the sky,” Chinese society still won’t let most women take hold of their own lives. State media pressures girls to marry before they turn 28, lest they become a leftover woman. Private firms hire fewer female applicants and underpay female employees. The CCP shut down China’s #MeToo movement and has detained and silenced feminist activists for raising awareness of sexual abuse. Many women are expected to keep house, but domestic violence is epidemic.

But Chinese policymakers are hardly primed to respond to gender discrimination. In his role as a delegate to the National People’s Congress (NPC) held this March, the author Jia Pingwa proposed ending the practice of listing the gender of delegates after their names. However, mirroring the gender imbalance within the ranks of the CCP’s roughly 90 million members, less than a quarter of the almost 3000 NPC delegates are women. Moreover, the NPC is widely seen as a rubber stamp for the CCP’s top decision-making body, the Politburo, which currently counts a solitary female among its 25 members. That’s down from a record high of two members before the organizational turnover at last October’s Party Congress.

But we overseas observers should remember too that Western countries, such as the US, still fall well short on gender equity. As of 2017, four out of five Congressional representatives were male. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has bucked a trend toward better gender parity in the Executive, appointing twice as many men as women to government offices. Vice-President Mike Pence doesn’t even trust himself to have dinner alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, and many Western politicians appear to blame women for being victims of sexual abuse. Access to abortion, contraception and parental leave remains tenuous for many. Male privilege is the ability to ignore all of this.

Railway security may not represent the frontline in feminist struggles, but getting rid of the “Gentlemen Only Line” would be a small step in the right direction. What’s more, if we men expose the priviliges that we enjoy everywhere outside of the train station, society might even start making some real progress towards gender equality. Many men don’t like to see women get ahead of them, but if the line isn’t fair to begin with, then what’s the problem with cutting in front? ∎


Photograph courtesy of the author.