Sisterhood Blog

Obsessive Segregation Is About Misogyny — Not Modesty

By Elana Sztokman

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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.

James Mon. Jan 11, 2010

Good for her.

James Mon. Jan 11, 2010

Your link to "showering him with pepper spray" is dead.

Jacob Tue. Jan 12, 2010

In these particular religious communities, BOTH the men AND THE WOMEN want to sit separately from each other.

There are a few bus routes that serve these communities almost exclusively.

The only reason that a secular woman would be on a bus from Meah Shearim to Bnei Brak, for example, is to provoke a battle with this religious community.

These religious women do not want to be stared at, as much as the men do not want to be forced to stare at them.

Do you think that secular women should enter a mosque and forcibly pray next to the men? Probably not, although my guess is that you did support the woman who broke Israeli secular law by disrespecting the customs of the Western Wall.

It is clear that your "equal rights" argument is a facade. Your anger is aimed only at religious Jews. I hope that your anger towards Gd and the Jews who serve Gd will eventually be replaced by tolerance.

Ilana Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob, you effectively create a straw man argument by comparing a mosque to a public bus. One is a place of worship that people enter voluntarily, while the other is a form of transportation that everyone who does not own a car is forced to take.

You have no way of knowing why the woman was taking that bus, but you've already jumped to the conclusion that she was riding it solely with the intent to provoke. Furthermore, even if she was, does that justify violent behavior? Would you defend the men who beat up Miriam Shear on the number 2 bus, for the provocation of sitting at the front of the bus?

You claim to preach tolerance, but in fact you're defending intolerance and violence.

Shalom Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob, your argument is foolish. Are the Chareidi of Lakewood, Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights able to cope with mixed seating in the public transportation in the US? Sure they have some private bus lines--but they also make do with public.

Furthermore, the fact that the women are sent to the back is a demonstration of the dishonesty of the argument. After all, if the concern was merely an innocent desire for more modesty, and the men are the ones who are more vulnerable to visual temptation, why aren't the men sent to the back? After all, it's less modest for a seated man to have a woman walking by him in the aisle, as his face will be close to her body, while if the man walks to the back, his head will be far above the women's bodies, thus enduring less temptation.

In any case, where has the concept of being 'rodef shalom' like Aharon gone, when a young man feels it appropriate to harrass his elders?

Jacob Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Ilana - I wasn't comparing a Mosque to a bus, I was comparing a Mosque to the Western Wall, another place of worship.

Shalom - In America, religious needs are not met by public institutions. In Israel, synagogues, mikvahs, rabbis, religious schools, are all provided by the government. Therefore, having a public bus line cater to the religious needs of its riders is normal conduct in the Jewish state.

You're right - the men could sit in the back. On the Monsey bus, a private bus line catering to Charedim, the men sit on the right, and the women on the left.

Sara - for better or worse, people in Israel live according to their religious beliefs. Secular people live in some areas, national religious in other areas, and Charedim in other areas. So yes - these special bus routes are for Charedi communities. A secular woman would really have to go out of her way to intentionally make a political statement on one of the bus lines.

Sara Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob -- the problem is that you use the term "community," as if buses belong to only certain people. And you speak as if you've done a survey of every single man and woman in Bnei Brak, or Geula, or Ashdod where there are now separate lines as well. I find it arrogant and irresponsible of you to claim that a woman sitting in front is not "of the community" that uses the buses when clearly she got on the bus to use it like everyone else! But of course, this is classic haredi thinking. It's not about halacha, but rather it's about keeping people 'inside' and 'outside' the so-called 'community'. The message is, do what everyone else does and you're okay, but think for yourself and you are no longer in the 'community'. That is the root of the problem here. (That, and the desire to impose these terrible values on the rest of Israel).

sara Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob -- you are wrong when you say, "people in Israel live according to their religious beliefs. Secular people live in some areas, national religious in other areas, and Charedim in other areas. So yes - these special bus routes are for Charedi communities." Israel is a heterogeneous nation with a PUBLIC bus system designed for everyone. It is ONLY the haredi community that tries to deny this by living in an insular way and pretending that the outside world does not exist. There is no such thing as a bus that goes ONLY through a haredi community. The Bnei Brak line goes through Ramat Gan and Bar Ilan University. The Meah Shearim goes to the old city with its diversity, etc. etc.

It is astounding the extent to which haredim are able to pretend that the rest of the world simply does not exist. This narrow-minded self-absorption that leads to the kind of intolerance that can justify violence -- this here is the true enemy of the Jewish people.

Jacob Tue. Jan 12, 2010

There are others factors in play as well.

The Egged bus corporation has a large vested interest in providing these Charedi bus lines.

If they don't, the Charedim will simply the the private network of vans and busses that run the same routes already. This would cause a substantial loss of income for Egged.

Remember, the vast majority of Charedim do not have cars, and use both local and intercity mass transit frequently. Therefore, they represent a significant market share of total bus users, more than their 8 - 10% numbers would indicate.

The government itself stands to lose significant income from a loss of Charedi bus lines. Every bus ticket includes in the price the 16% VAT tax. Unfortunately, private taxis and shared vans are, shall we say, less careful about reporting their income.

Look folks - I'm not Charedi. I just don't have this visceral hatred for them like some other Jews seem to have. I think if we all look at this concept objectively, we will see that there are many players here, not only the Charedim themselves, who are in favor of Charedi bus lines for their own reasons.

Most importantly, I am personally offended that anyone would categorize the laws of modesty and conduct as "misogyny".

Torah Observant Jewish women are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, members of Knesset, they are in all sectors of modern life. They observe the laws of modesty. If Jewish law was indeed misogynistic, if women were really treated so poorly, why would they remain Torah Observant Jews? Among these highly educated, financially independent women, they can certainly live any lifestyle they choose.

That's exactly what they do. They choose to follow Gd's holy law, and it does not hinder them from reaching their full potential in any area of life.

Sephardiman Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob-You can't have segregated public transport. That's a violation of basic human rights. I'm an observant Jew. I don't feel my religiosity is challenged becayse a woman may sit down next to me on my daily commuter train ride to work.

I can tell you there is a great deal of misogyny among charedim. Frankly, someone has to draw the line. So I say good for the pepper sprayer. Perhaps these zealots will think twice now.

Jacob Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Sephardiman, you say that "you can't have segregated public transport"

How do you feel about segregated public synagogues? segregated public mikvaot? These are the realities of life in Israel, and are not a subject of great concern to the vast majority of Israelis.

Sephardiman, if a woman wants to sit down next to me on a bus or train, I allow her to take the seat, while I stand. I am uncomfortable with the amount of inadvertent physical contact that occurs. I am a worldly, college educated observant Jew. My friends who come from the very insular Charedi world are even more shaken by such an interaction.

If the Charedi women as well as the Charedi men are in favor of this arrangement, how are anyone's "rights" in jeopardy?

I do not know where you live, Sephardiman, but in Israel, there is no constitution. We Israelis do not have an absolute freedom of speech. There is no anti-religious establishment clause. We have a state religion, that exists concurrently with personal freedoms.

Already, the High Court has defined where the line is drawn. One may not show up to any religious site, (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, etc.) in a manner of dress that is inconsistent with the sanctity of that site.

Also, one may not drive a car on the sabbath through a religious neighborhood.

Secular activists publicly jumping on a Charedi bus line, and protesting the seating arrangements, is still officially a gray area - but to me sounds quite similar to driving into Meah Shearim on Friday night with the radio blasting. (This used to happen often before the police stepped in and put up roadblocks on shabbat, so that Charedi residents can have a safe shabbat environment.)

I think that a certain percentage of men, from all religious and ethnic sectors of life, treat women poorly. I see no evidence that the percentage is any higher among Charedim than it is among the general population.

However, a news website gets more hits by talking about Charedim than any other kind of human being that treats a woman poorly.

Bill Pearlman Tue. Jan 12, 2010

This really isn't that complicated. You have young guys who aren't in the army, aren't playing sports, and aren't having sex. So of course they go ballistic over something that is idiotic

Steve Tue. Jan 12, 2010

The truth is that misogyny starts small. It starts with teaching boys to view females as something to stay away from. Whether because of "modesty" or because of "fear of sin" or because of "being uncomfortable" -- the net effect is the same. I've been part of the Orthodox community for 35 years and I can tell you that this has gotten a lot worse in the last 10-15. For example, you see many more seperate seating dinners now then you ever did in history. Rabbis often talk about how the "generations have declined" -- what they mean is that an immodest outside culture requires an even more radical seperation. This produces what I call the Talibanization of Judaism which in my view is not a good thing. This bus thing is just the latest. The trend is there and its really disturbing. *And it wasnt always this way*

Lydia Tue. Jan 12, 2010

Jacob says "How do you feel about segregated public synagogues? segregated public mikvaot? These are the realities of life in Israel, and are not a subject of great concern to the vast majority of Israelis". Segregated public Synagogues and Mikvah are completely different from segregated buses and should not be compared. As mentioned previously many people are forced to take the bus to work because they can't drive or don't own a car whereas going to a segregated synagogue or Mikva is a choice (people go to a Reform synagogue if they really want mixed seating) and some people believe that segregated synagogues enable people to focus more on prayer.

Jacob says "Secular activists publicly jumping on a Charedi bus line, and protesting the seating arrangements, is still officially a gray area" The bus line is also payed for by these secular activists meaning that the buses are for all the Israeli's NOT just the Charedi.

David Tue. Jan 12, 2010

The Haredi are the Jewish version of 'Scientologists' and until put in thier place will continue to threaten peace inside Israel and be an oddity and tourist attraction in the US.

Sephardiman Tue. Jan 12, 2010

@Steve, Bill, Lydia, & David-You responded to Jacob better than I ever could.

Female, Jewish and Proud Tue. Jan 12, 2010

As long as that bus is paid for by tax money collected from Israeli citizens as a whole, the seating on that bus should be first-come first-served, equal access to all.

The actions by these extremists (and extremists of any stripe) disgusts me. Are these Charedi men (and their Talib counterparts) animals, that they can't see a woman go by without sexualizing her?

Jacob Wed. Jan 13, 2010

I don't have a personal stake in this. If the Charedi bus routes are canceled, most Charedim will use private mass transit.

It just seems silly. The bus company wants to provide it, the government wants to provide it, and the vast majority of the Israeli public is unaffected by a few bus lines that don't serve their neighborhoods anyway.

What bothers me much more is the visceral hatred that I have witnessed, here and in other forums, against Jews. Comparing them to the Taliban is just sick. Most Charedim just want to be left alone to live their life.

Liberals are only "open-minded" and "tolerant" of people who agree with them. Very sad.

sara Wed. Jan 13, 2010

oh, please..... the haredi community is among the most intolerant on the planet. for haredim to start crying about 'intolerance' of liberals is ridiculous. and your statement, jacob, that liberals want people to agree with them is totally irrelevant. the point here is to provide public transport for all. stop crying discrimination as if haredim are victims of liberals. it's just absurd, completely twisted.

Ilana Wed. Jan 13, 2010

Jacob, your suggestion that only Haredim take the segregated bus lines, and therefore the segregation doesn't affect anyone else, is simply wrong. The country is not so neatly and easily divided, and nor are the bus lines.

I myself was forced to take a segregated bus on more than one occasion, as it was the ONLY bus I could take that would go to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station. I was vilified for sitting next to my husband ("It's disgusting," I was told), and witnessed elderly and pregnant women being forced to stand and move to the back of the bus (where there were no seats) as more men got on the bus.

It was a sickening experience that I hope to never repeat.

BK Wed. Jan 13, 2010

I guess you've never had a rock hurled by or have personally witnessed just what an intimidating threat an enraged Haredi Yeshiva student poses to a 60-year-old woman.

You're dead wrong. Rosa Parks couldn't pepper spray her opponent because the establishment at the time would have clubbed her, literally, and with official sanction. This woman can and should have sprayed the toolbag because we're allowing these little slave-garb pishers to co-opt ahavat Yisrael and then pretending the plight of the feminine bus riders is analogous to Montgomery circa 1960s. Um, last time I checked, in the Jewish world, people that are not down with arbitrary and non-Torah (without extreme exegesis) ideas of where a woman sits on a bus are in the majority.

If only all violent Yeshiva students would be billy clubbed or pepper sprayed by irritated (ostensibly) co-religionists and fellow Israelis, we might not see this ridiculous shandeh play out to our own embarrassment.

We are allowing a minority to bully the majority. Pepper spray and thrown punches are a good way to sideline these wankers.

May a moshiach come soon if for no other reason to tell these buffoons to bugger off.

BK Wed. Jan 13, 2010

And Jacob, few people lay this at the door of the entirety of Haredim. Oh, these poor, aggrieved folks who yell at a woman in her 60s.

This issue is about ahavat Yisrael, and if the yeshiva student's betters at school aren't taking him to task for being a prick to an old lady and working harder to teach Haredi youth to be respectful, then yeah, I feel fine about saying, "I do not tolerate you. If you don't leave little old people alone on the bus, then I shall probably injure you."

Tolerance is too often, in any direction, an excuse for inaction. My consideration of their religious principles, in America or Israel, ends where it starts being an inconvenience for me and mine. I'll respect their established decorum at Kotel, but on a public bus, well, a pisher will get what a pisher deserves.

Lydia Wed. Jan 13, 2010

As Ilana said, With Segregated buses there will be cases of elderly and pregnant women who have to walk to the end of the bus and stand because there are no available seats in the women's section (there must be many pregnant charedi women who have to take the bus on this route) while there are available seats in the men's section.

Sephardiman Wed. Jan 13, 2010

@BK-I agree with you totally. Enough is enough. Hendrik Verwoerd's apartheid South Africa was more decent of a society than this madness.

Tom Mathews Wed. Jan 13, 2010

As a former police officer, I would have valued having this wonderful lady as my back up. Forgive me if I am not surprised by the abuse showered on a woman of 60 by this well-mannered and brave 18 year old. One Saturday in Israel some weeks before the first Gulf war our vehicle was hit with rocks...not thrown by Palestinians but by ultra-Orthodox young people who apparently resented the fact that we should not be on foot as were they. That incident reminded me of what it might be like in the U.S. if the Christian right should ever have their way.

Dovid Thu. Jan 14, 2010

A question for the good people on this blog. If we really are intersted in a society where EVERYONE is satisfied rather then just venting against people who are in a different camp to oursleves, lets try and brainstorm on how everyone could be happy. A bus with 2 entrances or side by side seating. Or is this just about villifying religious people?

Sara Thu. Jan 14, 2010

Dovid --

This blog is not about "vilifying religious people" but about creating a society that adheres to basic principles of fairness and equality.

If "religious people" feel so vilified by democratic values like these, the solution is simple: hire your own buses and do what you want. Just don't expect the rest of the country to bow to your sexist, anti-democratic and anti-humanistic practices.

That's your solution for everyone. If haredim want to buck the rest of society and basic humanity, they should do it from their own pocketbooks. Gezunta heit....

Dovid Thu. Jan 14, 2010

A question for the good people on this blog. If we really are intersted in a society where EVERYONE is satisfied rather then just venting against people who are in a different camp to oursleves, lets try and brainstorm on how everyone could be happy. A bus with 2 entrances or side by side seating. Or is this just about villifying religious people?

Dovid Thu. Jan 14, 2010

Whose principles?? your own (which you so elequently call "the rest of society and basic humainty") Muslims?? Holywoods?? the haredim?? Just as you are so convinced that you are right, they are more convnced that they are right. By lambasting them or for that matter them attacking you nothing is acheived.

BTW, if the Haredim become the majority or already are the majority, dont they have a democratic right to have buses that are not offensive to them. Its your democratic golden calf!

All im saying is calm down the haredim and their lives although not perfect, are not as bad as being portrayed here at all. many haredim homes are bastions of purity hapiness and innocence. Theres gotta be a better to improve society then just getting onto 'womens only' blogs and pumelling them.

Lydia Fri. Jan 15, 2010

Dovid, most of the Israeli's are not Charedi and do not want segregated buses, this is what is meant by democracy. Most of the jews that go to Israel for holidays that help the Israeli economy by having second homes their and the Jews that move to Israel do not want Israel to be a charedi country, you must accept this. Most Jewish people do not want Israel to be a Charedi country only suitable for the Charedi. The charedi in England, America and outside of Israel do not insist on charedi segregated public buses because they know the majority of the country do not want it and this would make it imposing their beliefs on others. This is the same principle in Israel.

Yoine Cohen Fri. Jan 15, 2010

One point I see that is missed here but was touched on.

Egged is quasi government entity it is to my knowledge a co-op owned and operated by its drivers. But the Israeli Government gives it "monopoly" status and power.

No one could honestly argue that if this were a private service for Charedi folk that the Ultra-Orthdodox should be denied their preference in mode of travel. However Egged has been quite dogged in enforcing and discouraging Charedim organizing private transportation.

You can't argue both sides of an issue, if its "public" and that is whats bothering the feminists here, fine! Let the Charedim have there own way of transport local and intercity operated by private interests. But that is non starter by 'all' parties concerned as pointed out before.

I also suspect that whats really bothering most posters here, is the fact that there are people in this world who take a different view on how life is to be lived, and yes that 'is' in my book intolerance.

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