By Brenda Gazzar
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Five women in Israel are going to court to protest the way sex-segregated public buses are run in Israel. The arrangement serves the beliefs of ultra-Orthodox passengers but the women say it discriminates against other riders.
JERUSALEM, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--Naomi Regan says she wasn't trying to start a revolution when she refused more than two years ago to give up her seat in the front of a public bus to a man who insisted she move to the back.
The New York-born writer unknowingly boarded a sex-segregated bus line that caters to ultra-Orthodox riders. On these special lines women sit in the back, are expected to wear modest clothing and usually enter through the rear doors. Regan says that after she chose a seat in the front, a large Haredi gentleman leaned over her "in a threatening manner," told her to "get up and get back to the back of the bus," then cursed at her and yelled "at the top of his lungs" when she refused to budge.
Regan stayed put, she said, but endured a "constant barrage of verbal insults and physical intimidation" during her bus ride home.
Many in the ultra-Orthodox community prefer to sit in these special buses when available to avoid being in close proximity or contact with members of the opposite sex in accordance with religious custom.
"It has nothing to do with Judaism. It is a desecration of God's name," argues Regan, 57, who lives in Israel and describes herself as a modern Orthodox Jew. "If we don't draw the line in the sand somewhere, we are all going to end up in veils."
Regan and four other women joined the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center in January to petition the country's Supreme Court to compel Israel's Transportation Ministry to exercise its authority over the Egged and Dan bus companies' segregated lines, called "mehadrin" lines.
The petition asks to stop the operation of such lines until an extensive survey is carried out by the ministry to gauge demand, after which the operation of segregated bus lines would be approved only if a regular line is available for passengers at the same frequency and price.
The petition also asks that the mehadrin buses be clearly marked and that the government regulate the issue and supervise the bus lines to ensure passenger safety.
Shira Schmidt, an Orthodox woman, translator and journalist who has written editorials in defense of mehadrin buses, says it is reasonable to ask these bus companies--which are government subsidized--to supervise, regulate and clearly mark these buses. However, it is unreasonable to ask the companies to run a regular bus for every mehadrin route when there is little demand.
"Keep in mind that the vast, vast majority--probably 98 percent that Egged runs--are mixed," says Schmidt, who lives in a Haredi neighborhood and prefers to ride in sex-segregated buses when available. "And religious people have been riding these buses and putting up with it for years and years, as dress of people is getting more and more problematic . . . more exposed. . . There is raunchy music and ads that are not appropriate in the public sphere and dress that is not appropriate. The religious public has been tolerant and is still tolerant. They ride the mixed buses and they don't have a real alternative."
Schmidt says she has ridden with a private transportation company that caters to the ultra-Orthodox hundreds of times and "there's never been a problem" because passengers are able to arrange things on their own and without incident. If a woman wants to sit in front because she is not feeling well, people understand, she said.
The mehadrin lines started in 1997 as a trial project with a few lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak, but have expanded to include more than 30 inter-city and city lines around the country that now serve both very religious and secular passengers. The petitioners consider the current system to be discriminatory and against the law.
Transportation officials and the bus companies claim that the segregated lines are a voluntary arrangement and that women can choose their own seats.
They also say that grievances should be dealt with on an individual basis, by submitting complaints to the Transportation Ministry.
In a written statement, Egged noted that the special bus lines are coordinated by the government to encourage public transit use in the Haredi sector without creating an atmosphere of compulsion on buses.
"Drivers of the designated lines received appropriate guidance in serving the Haredi sector," Egged's statement said, "and in addition, they were instructed not to interfere in passengers' seating order and to allow the users of the public transportation to manage among themselves."
Egged condemns and does not accept any violent action, whether verbal or physical, the statement said. Further, the company will aid legal action that will prevent violent behavior and will turn to the police in the event of violent incidents on their buses.
In a widely publicized case in November, Miriam Shear, an American-Israeli woman living in Canada and visiting Jerusalem, says she was physically assaulted by several Haredi passengers after refusing to move to the back of an Egged bus, even though it wasn't designated as a mehadrin line. Shear is not included in the Supreme Court petition.
Orly Erez-Likhovski is an attorney at the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public advocacy arm of Judaism's Reform Movement in Israel, the most liberal branch of Judaism. She says riders should at least have alternatives to the segregated lines.
"If from Point A to Point B you have to take a segregated bus line, it's definitely against the law, against democratic rules of equality and against freedom," she said. "We don't demand that you demolish the whole thing but give them a choice."
The petitioners--some of whom tried to sit in the front--say they were humiliated, verbally harassed and even threatened by violence on these buses. In some cases, drivers cited immodest attire as a reason to bar the women from boarding the bus at all or for telling them to get off.
Supporters claim that these bus lines run mainly through Haredi neighborhoods. However, the buses are unmarked and appear from the outside to look like any other regular bus.
Sarah Brazil, 24, an observant Jew from Jerusalem, said she would not create a segregated bus herself but she "believes in respecting people's beliefs and feelings as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else." Incidents of violence or harassment on such buses do not reflect the behavior or attitude of an entire community, she said.
Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Orthodox media resource Am Echad, says he doesn't believe that mehadrin buses are a major priority in the Haredi community, nor should they be.
The government should permit more competition and grant licenses to private companies interested in serving the Haredi sector, Rosenblum argued, because the system would improve if segregated service was provided directly by those who demand it, particularly since Egged appears not to be enforcing their sex-segregation policy.
"People become their own private enforcers and that's the worst of all possible worlds," he said.
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.
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