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Why Montreal women are wearing 'subway shirts' on the metro to feel safer

A TikTok trend showing women wearing baggy shirts over their outfits to avoid harassment on the metro is getting mixed reactions.

The social media trend has garnered 14.5 million views, with the term "subway shirts" getting widespread attention. In the videos, women explain that they are removing their oversized tops once they exit the metro.

"I feel most women do that if they don't have any other options. Many times, I carry a jacket or coat with me in order to cover myself up just so that I don't seek unwanted attention. Even stares from fellow male passengers often make me uncomfortable, and it's very common," said Asmita Ghosh in an interview.

After two different experiences of harassment on the metro, Ghosh opts to use Ubers when going out at night rather than public transit.

"Using public transport from morning till late evening is pretty safe for me mostly, but not late at night, especially after 11 p.m. I think, being a woman, safety concerns increase after 11 p.m. or late nights in most of the metro stations," she added.

Victoria Monti noticed that catcalling was much more frequent when she was underage and while wearing her high school uniform. However, she still wears a jacket to cover up to be extra careful.

"I think it's necessary, especially at night, if you take the metro or bus and you're wearing something a bit more revealing. I think just for your own safety, I think it's crazy that we have to do that, but it's important for girls to protect themselves," said Monti. 

@itssophiemilner I didnt realise everyone else did this too 🥲 its a huge problem in london. Theres so many outfits ive just never worn out, or had to change so much, just because i knew people would make me feel uncomfortable for wearing it - be it catcalling or stares. #catcalling #subwayshirt #tubeshirt #subwayoutfit #tubeoutfit #ootd ♬ A work of art by s_johnson_voiceovers - Stefan Johnson

Another public transit user says she regrets not having their "subway shirt" handy after a night out.

"I recently went to latex last month and that was something that almost stopped me from going. I was in an oversized long sleeve button-up, but my fish nets were still visible. I Bixied there and felt fine, but taking the metro back home was super uncomfortable. Next time, I would wear my climbing pants and tops to really cover up to look as normal as possible," one Montrealer told CTV News. 

While none of the TikTok videos were meant to point to victim shaming, the debate on whether the trend puts the responsibility on the wrong person is up for discussion.

"This trend is positive in the short term, in my opinion, but ultimately, it's quite negative. When you look at the larger context, it's positive in the sense that it makes the person wearing the shirt feel safer, but it's negative because, in reality, they are not truly protected," said Leora Tanenbaum, author of I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.

Up to 99 per cent of women have already experienced street harassment and sexual harassment in public, according to researcher Florence Olivia Genesse (Jessica Barile/CTV News)

Tanenbaum explained that we are very far from living in a world where women no longer feel they have to cover themselves to feel safe. After researching slut-shaming and dress codes over the last several decades and speaking with more than 1,000 girls and young women, she concludes that the common thread is how they expect to be nonconsensually groped or harassed at some point in their lifetime.

"So regrettably -- and disturbingly -- I think that this trend of the subway shirt may be with us for a long, long time," she added.

Florence Olivia Genesse, a Ph.D. candidate in law and researcher specializing in sexual violence and rape law at Durham University, said up to 99 per cent of women have already experienced street harassment and sexual harassment in public.

"This number is not decreasing with years; it's only increasing and this is happening everywhere around the world. It's not simply in Montreal, Quebec or Canada. The same number between 97 per cent and 99 per cent of women are being harassed at least once in their life, if not multiple times," she said. 

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Marie-Emmanuelle Genesse, Feminist Tiktoker of "The Sis Official" on the trend


Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, says there's little evidence to suggest the TikTok method is effective and worries it could be perceived as victim blaming.

"No, it doesn't matter what you wear, doesn't matter what you're doing, no matter who you are, it's just that you're being targetted because of the vulnerability this society puts you in and someone taking advantage of that to feel powerful, to harm someone, to exert their power over somebody," she said.

However, Gunraj says women shouldn't be judged for "subway shirts" or any move that makes them feel safer.

"You do what feel is best for you, but that is not where the solution has to lie and we all have a responsibility."

In Montreal, the STM is trying to ensure that women won't have to feel the need to cover up for their commute. A collaborative campaign called "Witnesses, Take Action," created by the STM, Montreal police (SPVM), and the City of Montreal, was launched in June. It focuses on the need to take action if one sees or experiences harassment.

The hope with the campaign is to raise awareness of the steps to take towards making public transit safer for everyone.

"We believe that it's essential for customers to feel safe when using the metro or bus network. And we know that street harassment can be a barrier to using public transit," said a metro spokesperson. 

"Our goal in fighting this problem is to make our service accessible and appealing for all."

The STM urges public transit users to be proactive if they witness any harassment or experience it on their commute by getting help on-site with their staff using the intercoms on the metro cars to call for help and reporting an incident as soon as it happens. STM reminds passengers that cameras are on board, and the sooner an incident is reported, the faster they can respond.

Although neither the SPVM nor STM heard of "subway shirts," the overlaying issue of protection against predators isn't anything new nor taken lightly.

"The fact that women feel compelled to change their clothing habits to avoid being the target of street harassment shows that this phenomenon should not be trivialized," said the SPVM in a statement to CTV News.   

With files from CTV News Montreal's Angela Mackenzie Top Stories

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