Some brave ultra-Orthodox women speak out
The phenomenon of sex segregated bus lines is growing!
An ultra-Orthodox myth is that ultra-Orthodox women really want to sit in the back of the bus, so we shouldn’t interfere with the growing phenomenon of gender-segregated bus lines. However, ultra-Orthodox blogger Chani Weiser of B’nai Brak has recently come out publicly, challenging her community’s self-righteous claims. She does not want to sit at the back of the bus!
The phenomenon of segregated bus lines is actually growing. Idan Yosef of News1 reported just recently that four new bus lines have been established, designed to be gender segregated. What does this mean? By their very nature, segregated bus lines stop in ultra-Orthodox areas, even peripheral ones, and skip others, including important stops in non-Haredi neighborhoods. Gender segregated bus lines depend on secular and modern Orthodox women “not making trouble.” Last year, Yosef reported that ten new segregated bus lines were established throughout the country.
Yosef’s theory has been supported by the Knesset’s research and information center, which has found that the Transportation Ministry has planned new bus lines that skip important stops because these stops aren’t in or near ultra-Orthodox areas.
Chani Weiser is editor of the ultra-Orthodx blog “Ha’agala” (“The Wagon”). The blog, which has been running for several months now, offers a new kind of platform for Haredi writing. “I’m not a feminist,” blogged Weiser. “I don’t believe in equal rights or extra rights. I completely understand the morning blessing in which a man gives thanks to God for not making him a woman. I accept my place in the Jewish social hierarchy, I don’t want to put on tefillin or take a man’s place in the leadership. Just one little thing — I don’t like sitting in the back of the bus.”
"I politely answer ‘no’ when they ask: ‘Could you move to the back, to the special places for women?’ Sometimes I explain that there’s no such thing.
"Sometimes I point out the nice Egged sticker that says it’s prohibited to disturb passengers regarding the location of their seat, and they tell me, ‘Those aren’t our laws. We have the laws of the Torah.’
Even if no one says anything to me, they stare at me. They whisper and murmur. In the worst cases they shout at me, but usually they just ask, over and over again... I politely answer ‘no’ when they ask: ‘Could you move to the back, to the special places for women?’ Sometimes I explain that there’s no such thing.
"I often have to ride the intercity buses to and from Bnei Brak. I usually get on at one of the first stops in this city of Torah and Hasidism, when the bus is empty, and I take a seat one row before the door, in a good spot in the middle of the bus.
"It’s very rare that I can sit there and be relaxed. Even if no one says anything to me, they stare at me. They whisper and murmur. In the worst cases they shout at me, but usually they just ask, over and over again. They make me feel like a sinner who causes others to sin as well.
"Recently I started telling them, ‘My rabbi gave me his approval,’ but that doesn’t stop people — women, too, incidentally — from asking me again and again if I would move, from calling me ‘rude and impertinent’ and telling me that I’ll never find a marriage match. Seriously! What right do these people have to impose on me the strictures they’ve taken on?”
Chani Weiser isn’t the only ultra-Orthodox person speaking out, though for obvious reasons they are rare. Another example was published in the local Ashdod City ultra-Orthodox newspaper about a year ago. Moshe Behar and his girlfriend were on the 85 city bus, sitting at the front. An ultra-Orthodox passenger demanded that the woman move to the back, and began screaming and insulting the young couple when they refused. When Behar exited the bus, he was physically assaulted by a group of ultra-Orthodox men.
Of course, even if all ultra-Orthodox women were eager to sit at the back, it would not matter. Public transportation is also intended for random passengers. Secular or modern orthodox women are entitled to know that they will not be harassed or physically assaulted, as a result of exercising their legal right to sit wherever they want on public buses. Almost half of the female population of Israel would not travel on segregated bus lines. This was revealed in the 2011 annual Religion and State Index based on polling done by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute for Hiddush.
All told, it’s very difficult to quantify the matter — and the High Court is largely responsible for that.
How many segregated bus lines are there? It’s very hard to know. A February 2010 Hiddush report found that there were at least 63 official segregated bus lines in Israel and 10 unofficial ones — at least 2,500 trips per day. Dozens more have apparently been added, though on some older lines the situation has improved and there’s mixed seating.
All told, it’s very difficult to quantify the matter — and the High Court is largely responsible for that. In early 2011, in response to a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, the court ruled that gender segregation on buses was illegal, though passengers could voluntarily seat separately. The result: Since officially there are no gender-segregated lines, no one keeps figures on them.
How many incidents of violence and harassment are there on the segregated lines? We don’t know that either. Three and a half years ago, the High Court ordered the Transportation Ministry to conduct regular inspections of bus lines suspected of being segregated, but the Knesset Research and Information Center has discovered that the ministry hasn’t been carrying them out. Given the current political scene – it’s unlikely that the ministry will show much zeal in pursuing it, but thanks to brave Haredi women like Chani and fellow sisters who resent gender discrimination – Hiddush and like-minded NGOs may be able to counter this demeaning, illegal and discriminatory phenomenon that invokes the name of God to put women down.