I knew I would regret it as soon as I started typing, but I did it anyway. As much as I try to avoid getting into virtual arguments in talkback-land, this week I found myself unable to restrain myself. The language, it seems to me, is at the root of the problem, and that’s where the fight needs to take place.
At issue is the latest chapter in the saga of ultra-Orthodox pressure to send women to the back of the bus. Last week, a 60-year-old woman, perhaps inspired by Rosa Parks, sat down in the front and refused to move. When an 18-year old male yeshiva student tried to force her to move by yelling, cursing and threatening her, she eventually responded by showering him with pepper spray.
I kind of wish she hadn’t done that.
Maybe this is my Barnard education speaking, where I, like most every other political science major at Columbia University, had Professor Dennis Dalton’s “Introduction to Political Theory” course indelibly etched in my consciousness, where non-violence was espoused as the Goddess of Democracy. Or maybe it’s because I deeply believe that the act of one person hurting another human being is at the root of evil (see Nel Noddings, “Women and Evil,” a must-read for anyone interested in these issues). Or maybe because I know, in practical terms, that the woman’s act does not advance the cause of fighting gender segregation.
Nevertheless, despite these sentiments, I completely defend the woman’s right to do what she did (sorry, Professor Dalton). Moreover, I believe the story raises critical points about dynamics of violence — especially gender-based violence — in our society that are worth exploring.
Victims of violence have so few options at their disposal. Advocates often speak of the “fright, flight or fight” responses — either freeze (endure the violence), flight (run away and scream for help), or fight back. None of us can know what our response would be until we are faced with an attack. What is certain, however, is that none of the responses leaves the victim unscathed. “Fright” is so counter-intuitive that it makes later discussions embarrassing, if not harrowing. “If you knew he was raping you, why didn’t you run away?” is a common refrain. But becoming frozen is a well-documented human response. “Flight”, when possible, may save one victim, but leaves the attacker free to continue to pursue other victims, and often leaves the almost-victim perpetually terrified. And “fight” — what happened in this story — is where the victim becomes the attacker and the attacker becomes the victim, and then everyone is confused and the whole story is muddled and observers often lose their ability to tell right from wrong.
This is the great catch-22 of victims of violence. As soon as you fight back, you may save yourself temporarily, but you end up losing legitimacy as observers confuse you with a violent offender. (Perhaps this is why the Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and Professor Daltons of the world advise activists to avoid such a course of action after all. It’s just too confusing).
This is so frustrating to me that I ended up enmeshed in a rhetorical argument on Facebook. A friend of mine posted the aforementioned story on his Facebook page, and while most commenters actually supported the woman, others argued that what she did is completely wrong. I decided to point out the catch-22 of victims of violence. One man wrote back that while he sympathized with that sentiment in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict (!), he disagreed in this case because this particular woman — unlike the Palestinians — was not being threatened. I so did not want to start talking about proportionality and self-defense in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nevertheless, it is absolutely astounding to me how easily violence against women — as opposed to violence or even perceived violence against the Jewish people in general — is dismissed and pooh-poohed, as if women are getting hysterical and making a big to-do about nothing. Women’s safety is simply not on the public agenda.
We need to recognize that the ultra-Orthodox obsession with removing women from public spaces is in fact an act of systemic violence that is often accompanied by pointed violence (cursing, spitting, pushing, beating up, throwing acid and stealing babies, to name a few incidences from the past 2–3 years). This communal compulsion is a threat to women’s physical and emotional well-being, and goes against the basic tenets of democracy, humanity, and even Torah.
Yes, the Torah tells us that all human beings (men AND women) were created in His Divine image and deserve dignity and respect.
What really irritates me, though, is the language used to defend the segregation. I would like to see the media and others stop referring to gender segregation as an act “for purposes of religious modesty”, as the Jerusalem Post did this week, for example. The idea that a woman sitting at the front bus is “immodest” implies that a woman who dares to be seen in public is acting sexually, intentionally trying to arouse the men around her. This issue is not about “modesty,” but about misogyny. Obsessive segregation is an agenda created by men who see all women — young or old, rich or poor, fat or thin, educated or uneducated — as ineligible for a place in the front of the bus by virtue of their sex. This obsession is not religiousness. It is, in fact, an abomination.