With every step, the fear is present


With every step, the fear is present



1. the young mothers Tzideni and Azalea in front of the orange metro from the 70s in Mexico City, 2. passing the male music heroes of Mexico in the poorly lit metro passage, 3. Tzideni in the dark long-distance bus to Acolman, where robberies and sexual harassment occur again and again, 4. Azalea in the pink women’s bus on the way to Ecatepec, one of the deadliest places for women in the world, 5. Vigilant and with the cutter in her pocket, Azalea walks the dark 10 minutes home, 6. Azalea’s nine-year-old daughter hardly sees her mother during the week © Paola García

Translated by Laure Nashed. The original language of the article is German.


Azalea and Tzideni resist their fears on their way home. The young mothers have no choice, as the threats in their hometowns are real. Ecatepec is considered the most dangerous place in the world for women.


NZZ Feuilleton 08.03.2022


Through the loud wind and the sound of the old ventilation system, cheerful women’s voices are heard from one corner of the metro car. Despite the noise and the stuffy, humid air, the atmosphere in the women’s wagon of the orange-coloured metro in Mexico City is relaxed. Women of all ages sit opposite each other – chatting, looking at their mobile phones, reading a book or sleeping. One can guess their facial expressions behind the colourful, floral embroidered fabric masks or medical face masks, while the sounds speak for themselves.


Already one year after the opening of the metro network in the Mexican capital in 1970, the first two cars were reserved for women and children. However, this regulation was only applied during rush hours and only on certain routes. It was not until thirty years later that women’s carriages were introduced on almost all metro lines. Since 2016, the first three carriages are now reserved for women and children throughout, and the separation already takes place on the platform. At the same time, punishment was introduced: Men who enter the women’s compartments can be punished with 25 to 36 hours of detention.


The women’s wagons have not eliminated all the problems: in a UN Women survey of around 3,200 women in August 2017, nine out of ten participants said they had already been sexually harassed on public transport.


Two women on their way home

On this Friday evening in late February, the journey takes us to the north of the 22-million-inhabitant metropolis. The passengers have tiredness written all over their faces. Most of the passengers in the wagon use the metro and the public transport of Mexico City and the metropolitan region for three or more hours a day.


This is also true for Azalea, 28, and Tzideni, 32: They leave home at seven in the morning and do not return until nine or ten in the evening. For this journey, the young women choose a different route than men: after travelling in metro cars and buses reserved for women only, they choose the perceived safer route, not the shorter one.


Azalea and Tzideni are work colleagues in a urban planning office and often travel together from their workplace in the centre of Mexico City to the Indios Verdes metro terminus in the north. They describe the 40 minutes or so that they spend in the metro as «their» moment: here they are neither daughter, wife, mother nor employee. In the women’s wagon, they find themselves in a different, small world where no one has any expectations of them. Here they can watch series on their mobile phones or comfortably listen to music, which they otherwise rarely have the opportunity to do.


Men are not welcomed in the wagon

Even though the women’s compartments offer them no protection against theft, Tzideni and Azalea feel much safer here. The fear of violence, physical harassment, insulting words or lewd stares fades during the time they spend in the metro.

After a half-hour ride, the doors open at Potrero station. A horde of men rushes into the compartment. Although the mood in the wagon changes abruptly, the female passengers do not seem surprised. There is an exception here, Azalea explains. For two stops, from here to the terminus, the cars switch to mixed use. Neither of the two women know the reason for this. During this short period of male presence, it is much more crowded, tense and quiet in the compartment. The chatty women have fallen silent. The men look around, while many women mostly avoid their gaze.


The right body language in the flow of people

At the overground terminus, passengers are pushing out of the metro on all sides and are caught in a chaotic flow of people. It is loud and hectic. Despite artificial light, it is dark, the light flickers in places. This is where Tzideni and Azalea go separate ways. On the remaining part of their respective journeys home, their feelings of insecurity will be stronger, but the two otherwise mostly shy women move with decided self-confidence.


Inside the old long-distance bus that takes Tzideni to her home in Acolman in the state of Estado de México, north of Mexico City, it is dark and stuffy. Most of the passengers are men. She has already experienced several robberies and repeated sexual harassment on this bus. Like 86 percent of women, according to the UN Women report, she has never filed a complaint against a harasser. She lacks trust in the authorities. In fact, she fears that the officials would not believe her. As soon as the bus leaves, she types a message to her husband into her mobile phone. Depending on the traffic situation, she reaches the bus stop near her home in half an hour to an hour. Her four-year-old son is waiting at home for her to put him down to sleep.


The most dangerous place in the world for women to live

On the opposite side of the bus station, Azalea winds her way between people and standing buses. With determination, she walks towards one of the many long queues. Until a year ago, there were only private minibuses to get from here to Ecatepec, where she lives with her parents and her nine-year-old daughter. Ecatepec is considered the most dangerous place in the world for women, as the media keep reporting about «Mexico’s extreme zone of violence against women».


In the minibuses, the passengers sit close together. The risky driving style of the chauffeurs increases the physical contact. Since a few months there are public buses, a few of them are reserved for women and children. For the pink women’s bus, she often has to wait half an hour longer than for the other transportation options. But the wait is worth it, Azalea explains to me amidst the tense atmosphere at the bus station. Frequently, there are fights here.


All of a sudden, all the women run off to the elevated, brightly lit bus platform and crowd onto the bus, as it only stops for a short time. The journey begins and we pass the barrios, the poorest neighbourhoods of Ecatepec. Here, it is noticeable how much hardship radiates from the women’s faces. The terrible news from Ecatepec are always hard to digest, Azalea confesses. But it is her home: her nine-year-old daughter is growing up here, her relatives live here.


Cutter, dog and self-confidence

Throughout the half-hour journey in the pink bus, the young mother also regularly sends messages home sharing her current location. Before the last stretch of her journey home, she also writes to her father, because the last ten minutes on foot to her house are the scariest.  In her trouser pocket, Azalea carries a cutter. So far, she has only experienced armed robberies in her street. Nothing has happened to her yet, she points out. She often walks with her protective companion, her dog.


The path leads over a rather shaky, poorly constructed pedestrian bridge. A small convenience store marks the corner of the street with a strikingly bright light. Here she turns into the street. There are only a few people on the road, as far as one can tell in the darkness. Isolated street lamps fulfil their function only poorly or not at all.


But the vigilant young woman does not allow fear to rule her life. Azalea’s gaze constantly moves between the bumpy pavement, the road in front of her and the darkness behind her. At particularly dark spots, near parked cars or when she senses shadows, she changes sides of the road. Finally, a security guard opens the entrance gate of her “fraccionamiento” for us, a settlement with about 300 social housing units, where Azalea’s daughter is waiting for her.


Despite the brutal violence against women that has prevailed for decades and despite the lack of political will to take decisive action against these abuses, Azalea and Tzideni make their way to work every day. Even though they are confronted with the violent excesses of Mexican machismo at every turn.

Published in the Feuilleton of NZZ on 8 March 2022 © NZZ