BY PHILLY GRRL I vividly recall the first time I became a SEPTA apologist. It was my sophomore year at Temple. The Philadelphia Orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Fifth down at the Kimmel Center and I had just gotten a free ticket. It was the first time I was going to see them play and I was more than a little excited. An hour before the show started, I ran to the restroom at the student center to put on my makeup. (In my naïveté, I assumed the orchestra audience was akin to what I imagined the opera-going audience to be from watching Pretty Woman – long gloves and ball gowns.) As I was brushing on mascara, a Pakistani classmate walked in. We greeted each other awkwardly. A couple of weeks ago, she had gone from wearing a burka, which covered her hair, to a niquab, which covered her lips and nose. I wasn’t sure what precipitated such a change, but I suspected it had something to do with her impending engagement to the man her parents were currently picking out for her. Something about “being more modest.”
As I painted my lips red, she carefully adjusted her black chador. I looked at her in the mirror from the corners of my eyes. She pursed her lips. “What are you getting all dressed up for,” she asked in Urdu. I explained where I was going. She didn’t reply. “Okay, then,” I said. “I have to go, I don’t want to be late. I have to catch the subway.” It was then that I discovered what a trigger-word “subway” was. She was off. In between the hysteria-induced incoherence I heard phrases like “how can you be so irresponsible” followed by “think about your parents” and then “you’re not even dressed appropriately.” She ended with the following, “I don’t see why you think it’s okay to go on the subway without your brother or your father to protect you.” I left shaken.
Five years later, I realize what she said was no different from what other girl friends have said. There’s always some “helpful” female friend who is ready to share her “SEPTA safety” rules with here. Things I’ve heard? Don’t wear hoop earrings because someone will snatch them off your earlobes. Don’t wear jewelry at all, because everyone on SEPTA will assume it’s real gold since you’re South Asian and try to rob you. Don’t carry a purse. Don’t talk to anyone, for any reason. Never wear heels in case you have to run. Naturally, I never listened to any of those ‘rules.’
But of course there can be very real dangers for women taking public transportation. Just this week, police arrested a 14-year old boy accused of sexually assaulting four women in the subway. There can be very real dangers facing women living in the big city. (Which is why I always walk with my keys clutched in my hand like a stiletto.) But there are very real dangers facing any woman anywhere, anytime. Life has no guarantees. Ever.
Should SEPTA take more steps to make subways safer for Philadelphia citizens? Absolutely. A 2008 report titled Subway Safety by the office of City Controller, Alan Butkowitz concluded that “The city has no surveillance cameras in the subway concourses or adjacent tunnels, and has no plan to deploy any there.” (Which is terrifying, because I often walk there and it’s usually quite dark and deserted. Correction: I always get lost in there, I don’t deliberately wander into dark tunnels.) The report also included numerous pictures of defective emergency phones and concluded that few citizens were even aware of their presence. (God knows I’ve never noticed one.) At the same time, it’s ridiculous to completely swear off SEPTA because of urban legends you’ve heard. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The majority of SEPTA-goers and SEPTA employees are decent, hard-working citizens, people who will not hesitate to help a girl in need. I’ve never, for a moment, felt alarmed about my safety. So stay safe and smart fellow Philly girls. And don’t let a couple of naysayers stop you from going where you need to go.