Groups educating haredi women on ‘Mehadrin’ bus lines

Female activists: Gender segregation on buses part of radicalization trend in the haredi community.

By JONAH MANDEL
July 14, 2011 03:55
female mehadrin bus line

female haredi bus line mehadrin_311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

The most excitement on Egged’s line 56 in Ramat Shlomo was without a doubt emanating from its amiable bus driver.

“What, am I going to be on TV tonight?” he grinned as the last of the reporters, camera men, photographers, Knesset members and activists boarded his vehicle in the Jerusalem haredi neighborhood on a hot, quiet Wednesday morning.

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The group – which was the bulk of the passengers for most of the ride – was marking the launch of the “Grab A Spot” initiative, in which female students at the Hebrew University ride public buses in haredi areas to ensure that gender segregation is not being forced upon female passengers, who are allowed by law to sit in any part of the bus, and not be restricted to the rear, as is the norm on these lines.

Six months ago, the High Court of Justice ruled “public transportation operators may not tell, request or order women to sit in a specific place on the bus just because they are women – or to tell them how to dress; and they are entitled to sit anywhere they wish,” thus effectively abolishing the so-called Mehadrin public buses. At the same time, women were permitted to board the bus from the middle door, and even punch their own tickets with a perforator tied nearby that exit point.

The January ruling came in the wake of a petition originally filed five years ago by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and five women – including Israeli English-language author Naomi Ragen, who charged that there were no formal arrangements or conditions for the operation of these special bus lines and that, as passengers on these buses, they had been harassed by haredim for insisting on sitting in the front section.

If that Wednesday trip from Ramat Shlomo to Rehov Bar Ilan (which involved changing buses midway) could be considered indicative, it would seem as though the ruling is being followed.

Indeed, signs noting that people were entitled to sit where they wished were posted in the appropriate places above the doors, and a woman was sitting with her daughter in the front right seats of the second bus the delegation boarded. Another woman with a bright pink shirt and pants also boarded the bus with her son as the vehicle approached Rehov Bar Ilan and the delegation disembarked, using the front door and sitting quite comfortably in the front section. Nobody so much as gave her and her son a second glance.

“When I get on a bus, I don’t feel like I’m in Iran,” said a haredi man who identified himself as Shai. Meanwhile, the large group – including Meretz Mks Nitzan Horovitz and Ilan Gilon, and Kadima MKs Rachel Adatto, Orit Zuaretz and Nino Abesadze – stood waiting for the bus.

Shai was responding to the claims of the female activists and MKs that gender segregation on buses was part of a larger trend of radicalization in the haredi public that was spreading to the general public realm.

“If a woman wants to sit in front, it is obvious she should be allowed to. The Torah is against extremity, and prohibits getting off your chair if a woman sits next to you, as to avoid shaming her.”

Shai noted that the haredi men and women who tell female passengers to get to the back are an extreme minority, “but they are also getting more extreme,” he said, beckoning across the street at the group. “The buses are crowded, wouldn’t a woman rather be among other women? In a mixed bus they will say they are being harassed. This whole thing is too bad, it brings division among Jews instead of unity,” he added, most likely referring to the activists’ initiative.

Tamar Gur, a student of educational entrepreneurship at the Hebrew University who is part of the “Grab A Spot” group, noted that it is mainly women who tell her to get to the back of the bus. Unlike some of the others in her group, Gur was subject to verbal pressure to move to the back of buses before officially joining the group.

To Moriyah Shacham, who studies literature and is part of the Amirim program at HU, riding the buses in the haredi areas is an opportunity for dialogue that doesn’t always happen elsewhere.

“This is dialogue that should have taken place years ago,” she said.

Asked if the haredim on the buses don’t perceive the presence of her and other activists as a provocation – not an invitation to discourse – Shacham said “it really depends on the attitude of the people involved. We come with a moderate approach, we’re not attacking anyone, or pressuring them,” she said.

Shacham, who is in charge of the project in Beit Shemesh, and is Orthodox, noted that there was a definite improvement in not forcing women to the back of the buses following the court ruling and the activity of her group and others.

“There has been an order from high above in the haredi world that they shouldn’t make scenes on buses,” she said, “because they know they are being watched.

That’s great as far as the project is concerned.”

IRAC Director Anat Hoffman, whose movement is supporting “grab a spot,” agreed that there has been an improvement in the past months, but stressed that there must be efforts made to free the haredi women – especially the young ones – from the mindset that has been instilled in them regarding their place in society.

“See them,” she said, pointing at a small group of girls who boarded the bus from the middle door, and walked to the back of the vehicle. “They’ve been indoctrinated. It will take about 10 years to change that mindset,” she said, noting that it has been a decade since the segregated buses began operating, and five since IRAC filed their court action. “The verbal and physical abuse focuses on young haredi girls,” she added.

As the group disembarked, the bus suddenly became spacious.

The predominantly haredi passengers exchanged experiences about their ride in the presence of the lawmakers and media. A young hassidic man cynically deflected questions about the ride, the separation and, of course, the issue.

“Do you really think I’m going to help you besmirch us?” he asked bitterly.


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