Freedom Riders, circa 2011

In 21st century, why do we need a court to state the obvious – that women in this country are entitled to sit wherever they choose on a public bus?

womanbusshackle 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
womanbusshackle 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A major victory for women’s rights was won on January 6 when the High Court declared that segregation on public transportation is illegal. Relying on court decisions and legislation, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein expressed surprise that in the year 2011 the court even needed to state the obvious: Women are entitled to sit wherever they choose on public buses.
Reviewing the history of bus transportation, he reminded us that there had never been segregation on public buses, and that the issue of segregated seating was raised only in the past decade by a group of religious extremists. They demanded that women sit in the back of public buses on certain routes which traveled through haredi neighborhoods. They also demanded that women be dressed in a modest fashion, as determined by their “modesty patrols.”
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The Egged bus company complied with these demands and women were directed to the rear of certain buses, while the front was reserved for men. When some women refused to sit in the back, they were subjected to verbal abuse and occasional physical abuse by some male extremists.
A few women were not permitted to board these buses because of their choice of clothing. When best-selling Orthodox writer Naomi Ragen was subjected to severe harassment while riding a bus to her Jerusalem home, she decided to take action. In 2007, she filed a petition to the High Court of justice, claiming that she was being denied the right to sit in the front section of a public bus.
Joined by other female victims of harassment on buses, as well as by the Center for Religious Pluralism, they were hopeful when the court ordered the minister of transportation to set up a commission to study the issue, conduct hearings and publish its findings. The commission presented its report in late 2009, declaring that segregated buses were illegal.
Recognizing that some religiously observant men (and women) might wish to sit separately on public buses because of concerns for modesty, the court stated that in a pluralistic, multicultural society, everyone should have the right to sit wherever he or she chooses. However, the court made it very clear that women have the right to sit at the front of the bus (or anywhere else on it) without harassment of any sort, whether verbal or physical. Those who interfere with that right would be subject to criminal prosecution.
Justice Rubinstein, an Orthodox Jew, quoted liberally from Jewish law sources in his opinion, noting that respecting human dignity and love of all creatures were basic to Judaism.
SINCE ALL of the parties accepted the commission’s conclusions, the court ordered the Transportation Ministry and Egged to implement the report as follows:
1. All previously segregated bus lines are to carry signs stating that every passenger is entitled to sit wherever he or she chooses, except for seats designated for the disabled, and that anyone who interferes with that right by harassing a passenger may be subject to criminal prosecution. These signs are to be of a reasonable size and are to be posted at both the front and rear doors.
2. Bus companies must publicize in haredi daily newspapers that segregated bus routes have been cancelled, and every passenger has the right to sit wherever she or he chooses.
3. Bus drivers are to be trained to implement the court’s decision that segregation is illegal.
4. The minister of transportation is responsible for the overseeing the implementation of the court’s decision, and must monitor the previously segregated bus routes to ensure that women are not being harassed or threatened.
The court declared a trial period of one year to determine if the decision to eliminate segregated buses was being enforced. Rubinstein stated that if the Transportation Ministry finds that it is unable to protect women who choose to sit in the front of public buses, it should use its authority to close down those routes which continue to force segregation. He concluded that the influence of court decisions on human behavior may be limited. He expressed his hope that all parties would behave with tolerance and good will, for the benefit of society.
Women are cautiously optimistic, but unwilling to rely solely on government agencies and commercial bus companies to enforce the court’s decision. A nationwide campaign entitled “Freedom Riders” is planned, which will encourage women to ride buses on previously segregated routes, and to report on their experiences.
In the spirit of Rosa Parks, this grandmother (and big-mouth lawyer) intends to take a front seat on one of those buses on a weekly basis. I’ll be carrying my cellphone so that I can call the police if necessary. How about joining me?

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer based in Jerusalem. She is the director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project and was the only woman to serve on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2003-2009.