JAKARTA, Indonesia – JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — As the train rattled into Indonesia's capital, 19-year-old Wiwit Wahyuningsih leaned back in a soft, pink-cushioned seat in a carriage newly designated exclusively for women.
It was a great feeling, the university student said, knowing she didn't have to worry about being ogled at, pinched or even groped.
"The trains are always so packed, there are thousands of people crammed up against one another," she said as she arrived at her station, books tucked beneath her arm. "Especially during morning and evening rush hours, it's very common to be harassed or touched by men, intentional or not."
Indonesia, a secular nation home to the world's largest Muslim population, is often held up as a beacon of modernity. Women wearing headscarves — for religious reasons, fashion or in some cases to avoid unwanted attention — can be seen walking alongside friends in shorts and tank tops in glitzy shopping malls. Flirtatious teens fill coffee shops and male and female co-workers sit side-by-side at outdoor food stalls.
Except in mosques or religious schools, segregation between the sexes is rare.
But the state-run train operator PT Kereta Api Indonesia decided to set aside two cars in an eight-coach commuter train that runs between the capital and outlying suburbs after being flooded by letters of complaint from women. As they increasingly enter the work force, women now account for half the 500,000 passengers riding the train in the greater Jakarta area every day.
The new train service for women had a soft launch on Thursday and went into full swing Friday.
"We need to protect them," said Makmur Syaheran, a spokesman for the company, adding that if the service is a success, it could eventually be expanded to other trains in the sprawling archipelagic nation.
Stories about sexual harassment have made headlines in local papers in recent months and have filled up commentary pages. They also have become popular topics on blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Coincidentally, the controversy peaked just as two high school students posted a video on YouTube showing themselves singing to "Keong Racun," which translates as "Poisonous Snail," about a slimy old man who relentlessly pursues a completely uninterested young girl. With more than 3.6 million views, the teens, and the song, became an overnight sensation.
Women packed into the train, quickly filling up the 58 seats in each of the two male-free cars. Many reached in their bags for mobile phones and immediately started sending text messages or making calls. Others, who couldn't find a seat, crouched down in front of their friends to chat, or grabbed onto the swinging ceiling handles.
Asmawati, an acupuncturist who for 15 years has traveled into Jakarta daily to treat private clients, said she was impressed.
"It feels so relaxed, I love it," said the 41-year-old who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name. "Clean, air conditioned, no one bothers you ... I hope they keep it up."
Yanti Sumarni, 28, agreed, describing how a man once pressed up against her and then leaned his head on her shoulder.
"I hated it," she said as her friend Helena, added: "If anything, two cars isn't enough. Look! There are more than 200 women here. It's a good start, but we really need more."
Government officials were quick to point out that it is not obligatory for women to use the carriages. They're free to ride with men in the other six cars if they so choose.
Imam Prasodjo, a sociologist from the University of Indonesia, said any form of segregation, especially in public places, can be viewed as a setback in a modern, newly democratic society. But the women-only carriages should be considered in the context of the country's strong tradition of egalitarianism.
"In this case, it really has nothing to do with discrimination," he said, noting that, while sexism undoubtedly exists, men and women do work alongside one another in rice fields and in tall office buildings. "It's about making their journey safer. I think most people will welcome that."
Indonesia is not the first Asian country to offer same-sex carriages. Neighboring Malaysia recently reserved several pink coaches for women. Japan has offered the service during morning rush hour for years. And in India, female passengers have entire trains to themselves.