As you may know, there has been a growing tendency in recent years for bus routes that predominantly serve the Haredi (Ultra-orthodox) community to have gender separated seating, with women and girls in the back and men and boys in the front. When individuals complained to the public bus company, they were told it was something the community wanted. In some cases, the company helped enforce the segregation, “for the comfort of the Haredi community.” After many reports of harassment and intimidation, IRAC (The Israel Reform Action Center) took the issue to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007. Never an institution to rush a decision when a slow walk can do, the court finally ruled in January 2011 that enforcing gender segregation on public transportation is illegal.
Every public bus now has prominent posted notices stating that any passenger has the right to sit in any unoccupied seat. But of course that is not the end of the story. Gender segregation is still the norm on several bus lines, with girls and women generally continuing to sit in the back because the rebbes (religious leaders) consider it an affront to dignity for a men to sit behind a woman, but not the other way around. However, now there is an avenue for protest and redress. Recently, a 15-year old Orthodox school girl took her complaint to court after the bus driver ordered her to vacate her seat at the front of the bus and stand at the back of the bus for the remainder of her ride. With the support of her parents and IRAC, Ariella Marsden went to small claims court and was awarded 16000 NIS (over $4000) from the driver and the bus company for this illegal humiliation. The Ariella Marsden case and a few others like it have changed the dynamic—a bus driver is now unlikely to help enforce gender segregation on the bus. Nevertheless, a community-enforced culture of gender segregation continues.
To help break this culture of segregation, IRAC, under the direction of Anat Hoffman, asks progressive groups coming to Israel to devote two hours to riding heavily segregated bus lines. Ameinu’s Journey participants took one such ride.
First, we met with Anat and her bus team to learn what to expect. Then we rode our tour bus to the beginning of the #56 line, in the Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. As we rode through Jerusalem up to the beginning of the #56 line, we passed several #56 buses going down the route. Every one of these buses was an extra-long articulated bus—almost two full buses attached with an accordion-like middle; these are buses where “front” and “back” have a clear meaning. All the buses we passed were gender segregated, with a few men in the front half and many women crowded, often standing, in the back, despite there being empty seats in the front of the bus.
When we got to the start of the route, our group split into two, so as not to take up a majority of seats on a single bus. A bus quickly appeared at our shelter. The first group of Ameinu tour participants got on and paid the bus fare of 6.60 NIS (about $1.75). On my bus, everyone else who boarded the bus along the way paid with a discount card. Students get a 20% discount, the elderly get a 50% discount and there are discounts for monthly passes. Those on welfare get special free passes. Buses are how the poor and working class get around in Israel and they mostly do so with a government subsidy. These segregated buses aren’t Haredi private buses; they are public and heavily subsidized.
The bus we boarded was configured for maximum standing room and poorly configured for a situation where seated passengers want to avoid physical contact with one another. On one side, behind the bus driver, the rows were made up of single seats. Some were faced each other and some faced the back of another seat. A single seat facing the back of another single seat offers the only chance for a rider to be guaranteed not to be in physical proximity to another rider. I counted five such seats: two in the front of the bus, one in the accordion middle and two in the back. On the other side, the seats had bench style seats for two people each. Some benches faced one another so that seating was for a group of four (a quartet), in very close proximity.
As we boarded the bus, the women in our group each sat in a separate row so as to make space to welcome another female rider. We boarded at a time of day when women were returning home from work to go cook dinner. Most men were still doing that they do all day, studying and praying. Men start riding the bus about an hour to an hour and a half later than the women. There were two elderly men on the first row of the bus but, otherwise, it was all women (except for the two men from our group.) This almost entirely female group of passengers would probably have crowded themselves in the rear of the bus had we not come and integrated the space.
As we had been told, as soon as they saw us, older women—many laden with packages—sat down in the front of the bus next to us. Some of them did a double -take to make sure they were seeing it correctly—women in the front of the bus. And then these older women sat right down, obviously happy to have a seat and also not to have to balance their loads as they struggled to the back. Schoolgirls and younger women quickly scurried past us to the back, sometimes with interested glances, sometimes clearly trying not to make eye contact. Finally, toward the end of our ride, a schoolgirl of about 16 sat down next to one of the Ameinu women. She had that universal defiant and smug look of a teenager who has done something brave and slightly taboo.
The bus seats were tiny, at least by US standards. I was soon sitting with a hefty woman in her 50’s. I was pushed against the wall of the bus and our thighs were in contact from hip to knee. There was woman in her 60’s across from me—not a particularly large woman—and her knees touched mine as the bus moved. Another woman from the Ameinu group completed our group, with her knees often against my neighbor’s and even touching one of mine as the bus jerked down the road. There was no way to avoid physical contact with my seatmates.
This physical contact is relevant in a cultural situation in which it is taboo for men and women to touch. These buses are configured in such a way that for a woman to take a seat in the front means that she needs to find another woman with a vacant seat next to her or a single seat just for herself or an empty bench or even an empty quartet of seats. It is unthinkable that a respectable Haredi woman would sit down where she knows she will be in physical contact with a man.
I’m not squeamish about seating next to strange men on the DC Metro, but I suddenly realized how roomy those Metro seats are by comparison. I must say that I would not relish the idea of seating next to a strange man on such small seats, knowing in advance that I was going to be in such unavoidable physical contact. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t pass up an empty set of seats to go stand in the back because a man might sit next to me. Nevertheless, the physicality of the situation did give me pause.
I thought about my Indian friend’s stories of how happy she was when she went home last summer to find that the Mumbai light rail system now has separate cars designated for women only. Women can still ride in the other cars, but in her opinion, why would they? She had told me before that she always hated riding the train because strange men used the crush of bodies and limbs to cop a feel of a breast or to pinch a bottom. In the cramped the seating on the Jerusalem bus, I wondered whether the Rosa Parks-desegregationist model that we American liberals bring to this bus issue is the culturally appropriate one. Could the solutions from Mumbai, India be more relevant to Me’ah Shaarim than those of the Montgomery bus boycott? Well, ideal or not, the Israeli Supreme Court sided with the ideals of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, not those of my friend Mandira in Mumbai, so Ameinu took up the call for freedom riders.
I looked at the faces of the two tired, burdened, older women who had each been quite happy to plunk themselves down in the front of the bus in my quartet of seats. Was Montgomery the right model for them? Maybe it was. After all, they had probably seated themselves in the front whenever they could all their lives, until very recently, when gender segregation in the buses began.
It is easy for us from outside Israel and from outside the Ultra Orthodox world to consider this new development of increased gender segregation as having to do with us, the secular public. But on that bus ride, it was clear to me that the women that are affected by this are certainly not Jewish women in the Diaspora or the secular women of Tel Aviv or even the Modern Orthodox women of Jerusalem who might ride this bus route once in a blue moon. No, the women who are affected by bus segregation and by dozens of other nitpicking new gender-related stringencies are the Haredi women whose lives are made just a bit more difficult by having to schlep their groceries to the back of a crowded bus.
If sixty years ago, or even ten years ago, men and women could ride buses with mixed gender seating, why do buses need to be segregated today? I don’t think that there is one easy explanation but I do want to suggest a few.
First, as the Ultra Orthodox sector of the population grows, there is a tendency for each subgroup to show that it is the most pure in its observance. Each group adopts the most stringent practices of the other groups and invents new ones. This spiral of increasingly stringent observance is manifest in many aspects of Haredi life, from the recent insistence that kosher broccoli be grown in special bug-free soil to the new announcement of a higher mechitzah (gender separating wall) planned for the Kotel (Western Wall) .
Second, while to our eyes the social power in the community may seem to be in the hands of the rabbis and the men, the economics of the communities tell another story. Why were there so many women on this bus? There were girls coming home from school—schools where, unlike their brothers, they are learning something closer to the national curriculum of math, science, English and modern history, as well as their Jewish studies. They are learning useful skills because they are being prepared for the workforce. But that also means that they are being exposed (just a little) to strange and different ideas, ideas that might give them inklings about independence, civil rights and modernity. That 16-year old girl who sat down in front knew she was doing something her community didn’t approve of, but she was sitting directly under the sign that announced it was her legal right to be there. Think how complex that is for a Haredi girl: She knows there is a world out there and she may daydream about joining it, but to do so—even to sit on the front of the bus and possibly stir up gossip about her rebelliousness—is to risk the world she knows and to make her a less attractive mate for a highly prized scholar. And yet she is 16 in a world where she knows that other 16 year olds wear make-up and pants, date boys, sing in public, and are getting ready to serve in the army, while she is preparing to get married, have babies and support the entire family so a husband she hasn’t met yet, a husband who may not be as academically gifted as she is, can spend his whole life studying. What 16-year old girl wouldn’t want to try something a bit daring just once, even if it is just sitting in the front of the bus on the way home?
The other bus riders were predominantly women coming home from work. Haredi women have relatively high labor participation rates these days—almost 70% of women 18-55 work outside the home. These are women who bear an average of 8 children and take care of everything in their households; now they are almost always also the sole breadwinners in the family. It used to be that between their husbands’ “student” stipends for studying in the yeshiva and the government stipend, which increased per child for each additional child, a family could eke out an existence. But now the stipend is the same per child, up to five children. Twelve children? There is now no extra stipend for those last seven. Overnight, in the late 1990’s, families that had been eking by on government subsidies were thrust into poverty. And almost all of these families solved the problem the same way—by sending the women to work.
Haredi women now go out into the world everyday. They may be in semi-sheltered, all female environments, such as call centers where their bosses are women, but they are spending their days with women from other Haredi sects and with women from the national religious community and occasionally with secular women. Their worlds are opening up. Women, being women, talk. One shares a recipe for getting the children to eat more vegetables and another says that her rebbe doesn’t make them search the broccoli with a magnifying glass because the microbes are too small to be significant and thus a discussion of the rulings of different rabbis begins. Not that they question their own rebbes (G-d Forbid!), but they are more aware that there are different ways even among the Haredim themselves. The boss has a university degree and earns five times as much an hour. How can that not open a woman’s eyes? Not for herself, but for her daughter Rivki who loves school so much. If her daughter has to work, shouldn’t she have the training to earn more money? Maybe even a real career, so she can afford to hire some help with all her future children (G-d Willing.) At work, she hears about Haredi female lawyers, nurses and doctors. Not in her community, of course. Not yet, anyway.
Then there is the money. Collectively, it changes the balance of power in a community when women enter the workplace. In most communities around the globe, divorce rates rise when women have the economic power to end bad marriages. That hasn’t been a major effect in the Haredi world, but the balance of power has surely shifted. In answer, the men use a different type of power, the power of Torah interpretation.
It is no accident that as women increasingly entered the outside world and gained economic power, the men have found ways to diminish them with ever more stringent rules. Segregated buses. New rules about what makes vegetables kosher. A physical division placed down a major road during Sukkot to separate the genders. Separate entrances for men and women at the local fish store.
And yet, Haredi women are increasingly out in the world, exposed to the diversity of choice. Some Haredi women are claiming that they have rights that their rebbes would deny them. (For an example, you can read about the recent response by Haredi women to the fact that both Haredi political parties have officially refused to put women on the list of delegates to the Knesset see http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4324535,00.html)
The Supreme Court has ruled that bus segregation is an unacceptable practice on a public bus line. But this is about more than law. And certainly about more than the rights of secular women to sit where they want when they venture on to these lines. This is about the balance of power between men and women in the Haredi community.
When we finally got off the bus at the end of the line in Me’ah Shaarim, a woman in her forties stopped me as I stepped down. With two daughters in tow, she asked me in her very thick Haredi Hebrew, “Excuse me, please. Where are you all from?” I told her we were all from the United States and Canada. “Wow,” she said. “You women have such courage. Girls, see how brave the Jewish women in America are!?!” At that moment, I realized that in our heavy coats and hair-covering hats, we Ameinu women didn’t look secular to her. We just looked like Jewish women, women who came from a place where we have learned to be brave enough to sit in the front of the bus if we feel like it. Today, this woman has to be brave enough to make her way in the world of work to support her entire family. And her daughters know they will have to do the same. Maybe someday she and her daughter will decide they are brave enough to seat in the front of a bus if they feel like it, even if there are no “freedom riders” on the route #56 that day.
To read more of Judy Gelman’s reflections on the Israeli Social Protest Movement click here