No news from the front of the bus

Sitting at the front of a ‘mehadrin’ bus was the ultimate anti-climax: No violence, no rude comments and no harassment.

woman on a mehadrin bus_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
woman on a mehadrin bus_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I’ve been freedom-riding the No. 418 “Mehadrin” bus between Ramat Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem for a few weeks, and here’s what’s been happening to me: nothing. I get on, pay my fare, sit down in the front of the bus, and then – that’s it.
I haven’t encountered one instance of physical violence, verbal threats or otherwise obnoxious harassment. There has been an occasional “Mehadrin!” muttered quietly by some men, but they gave up quickly when I ignored them. One man told me I was supposed to move to the back, as per the custom, but when I asked him if he could read the sign which states that riders can sit wherever they choose, he said, “I’m just telling you that this is the custom, you can do whatever you want.”
One bearded, black-coated man announced that women should move to the back, and when a secular-looking, jeans-wearing woman challenged him by asking if that was the law, he said, “No, but I am requesting that you do it.” We women stayed in our seats and didn’t hear another word from him or anyone else.
Once a man asked the bus driver to tell the women to move to the back, which I thought was a nice touch, as I don’t think it is modest for a man to begin a conversation with a random woman on a bus, even to discuss seating arrangements. For the record, the driver said in response: “I don’t know anything about this.”
On the 417, the non-segregated bus which essentially covers the same route as the 418, the passengers are almost all ultra-Orthodox. It is accepted practice that if two sets of seats are each half-occupied, with one man at each window seat, women riders will not sit down next to a man, but will instead politely ask one man to move next to the other man to free up seats for women (or vice-versa, with a male rider asking a female rider to move).
In almost all cases, when a man and woman are sitting next to each other, they appear to be married (although nobody asks to see their ketubah, or marriage contract). There are fewer screaming babies on the regular bus because families sit together and a man can hold his baby instead of forcing his wife to juggle an infant and a toddler.
Most of the men on the 417 study, work on their laptops or chat with the men sitting next to them during the ride. I have yet to see any inappropriateness borne of the mixed-sex environment. Everyone on the 417 bus has been exceedingly polite and modest. What behaviors are so offensive that a segregated bus is needed to save passengers from sin?
I AM offended that a public bus would discriminate against women, when there is no reason, ruling, or precedent for the practice in Jewish or secular law. I respect the men who avoid sitting down right next to me, to prevent accidental touching, but I do not understand why my mere presence in a nearby seat bothers a man. He has the option of closing his eyes or looking away, just as he may do when he walks on a sidewalk or goes to the bank. Actually, on a bus it is fairly easy to keep your eyes on a holy book.
For the record, I am a descendent of a Hassidic family and value the modesty practiced in the private lives of many communities in Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh. I’m an Orthodox Jew and I dress accordingly, in a skirt that covers my knees and a shirt that covers my elbows and collarbone and a kerchief that covers all my hair. The reports of violence and intimidation against women who are exercising their legal right to sit in the front of the bus horrified me, and that is what prompted me to become a freedom rider.
Relegating women to the back of the bus, burka-wearing, and the disappearance of images of women and even young girls from newspapers are things that can quickly become customary in a community that treasures traditions. This is why we must speak up and make it clear that these things were not part of the Judaism of our grandparents.
Since there is a lack of data on how many women sit in the front on “segregated” buses without facing any antagonism, we have no way of determining whether the reported violence is typical or atypical.
While I would rather not hear any grumbling or helpful suggestions when I choose a seat on a bus, I can’t say I have faced any unpleasantness at all, so I conclude that the violent episodes were very rare, and do not represent the reactions of the vast majority of men who choose to ride on a “segregated” bus. Hilary Clinton can now focus on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia; we are doing just fine here!
The writer is an educational psychologist and teaches at Efrata College, Jerusalem.