Standing up for a womans right to sit in the back

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955. Refusing to sit in the back of the bus led to her arrest, trial and the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.

Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time that people get tired.”

How can it be, then, that my Jewish cousin from Alabama, who supported Rosa Parks and the boycott then, is now standing up for the right to sit in the back of Egged buses in Israel?

She too says, “There comes a time that people get tired.” But she, and many haredi men and women like her in the fervently religious sector, are tired of the drastic deterioration of deportment and dress in public.

In billboard and newspaper ads women are shown posing and exposing in ways that were not done two decades ago. Beach attire is worn and bare midriffs are displayed in downtown shopping areas, in schools and on buses.

Relegating a group to the back of a bus raises the specter of discrimination. However, a sizable segment of religious people views a voluntary “back of the bus” custom as positive.

Many Orthodox women prefer the back of the bus because of the greater privacy it affords. In addition, Jewish law recognizes that in order for men and women to function in the public domain, the natural attraction between sexes must be muted to facilitate family focus.

The women try to be attractive but not actively attracting (or nicely distracting) in public. The men try to avoid wandering ruminations (the halachic rubric of hirhurim) and to avoid roving eyes (shmirat einayim). The twice-daily declaration Sh’ma Yisrael warns, “you shall not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray.”

In her novel “Jephte’s Daughter,” Naomi Ragen uses her superb narrative talents to convey the cruelty of a father who tries to train his toddler not to eat a forbidden food by dangling it in front of the child.

We, in addition to exercising self-control, try to minimize our exposure to attractions for which there is no legitimate outlet. Haredi women consider themselves partners in this endeavor. They see benefits accruing to them when practical steps are taken by their menfolk to adhere to this high standard.

The reason the men don’t sit in the back of the bus is that men are much more subject to the visual stimuli of women, as the advertising industry well knows. The feminism of the 1970s, which maintained that to have worth women must be identical to men, has given way to a feminism that celebrates the fact that women are different.

Normative Judaism resolves this paradox by incorporating these seemingly mutually exclusive views. The Torah expounds an axiom of dissimilar equality of men and women. Thus sitting in the back of a bus, or synagogue — for practical reasons — does not impinge on the equality in status. It is simply a practical expression of the fact that men and women are differently wired.

Partly in reaction to the decay in public standards below their comfort level, haredim began running their own buses with voluntary gender-separation sans lewd ads or music. Egged lost an important segment of customers because the haredi rate of car ownership is among the lowest in Israel, and haredi bus usage among the highest.

The first sentence in Naomi Ragen’s op-ed against such voluntary separation reflects the gap between the car-haves, and car-have-nots: “I can’t remember the last time I took a bus in Jerusalem.”

I doubt there is a person from the haredi sector who could say this. Egged’s decision to win back passengers by offering a similar voluntary separate-seating service in addition to their regular bus lines is democracy in action and responsiveness to those in the lower socioeconomic strata.

Ragen’s exceptional gifts enable us to feel the degradation that she experienced when she inadvertently boarded a gender-separated bus. Usually no one bothers in the isolated case of a woman, or man, who sits in the wrong section. I myself boarded such a bus unknowingly and was glad when someone politely clued me in.

Of course there is no excuse for rudeness or intimidation of passengers unfamiliar with this custom.

Rather than being retrograde, this is modern multiculturalism. (In Japan whole train cars are set aside for women). Fervently religious women view separation and privacy in appropriate places as empowerment, and as an aid in maintaining their half of the partnership with men that is needed to keep powerful attractions focused within family relationships.

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt is a graduate of the Technion and works at the Haredi College in Jerusalem. This column previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.


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