Women Protest Gender-Segregated Buses

08 September 2009 By New Israel Fund

Dr. Zvia Greenfeld fears that the recent introduction of gender segregated buses in Israel is just the  tip of the iceberg. She said, "Ultra-Orthodox society already restricts the role of women in the family and community. Now they want to restrict women in public places starting with buses. This is a dreadful problem and it must be stopped."

Dr. Greenfeld, chairperson of former NIF grantee Mifne Institute, which promotes democracy and pluralistic Jewish education, was one of more than 50 women who took part in a demonstration last week against segregated bus lines in which women are compelled to sit at the back of the bus.

Holding banners that said, "Free transport today – end discrimination in public spaces", the women boarded buses en-masse and sat in the front half of the vehicle, which is reserved for men only, on ‘kosher routes’.

Photo Caption: Dr. Zvia Greenfeld: Segregated buses legitimize discrimination. 

"We behaved sensitively towards the passengers," said Dr. Greenfeld, who describes herself as modern ultra-Orthodox, "and although we sat at the front of the bus, we did not sit next to ultra-Orthodox men. For decades the bus companies ran lines through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and because people behaved sensibly and sensitively, there were no problems."

The protest came as a special Ministry of Transportation committee began discussing the issue of the gender segregated bus lines and preparing formal legislation on the topic. The Ministry was ordered to regulate the matter following a petition to the High Court in 2007 by veteran NIF grantee Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel (Reform). IRAC represented five women - including Naomi Ragen, the orthodox American-born novelist - who live in neighborhoods served only by segregated buses.

IRAC has been monitoring the estimated 30-40 segregated bus lines around Israel, and has collected evidence from women who were physically assaulted for not sitting at the back of the bus.

Rina Bar-Tal, Chairwoman of former NIF grantee Israel Women’s Network (IWN) said, "It is unthinkable that in a county claiming to be democratic and forward-thinking, women are being violently pushed to the back of the bus and are subject to insults and humiliations simply for being female."

Erez Lachovsky of IRAC’s legal department said, “We want choice and not coercion. Women have the right to travel on gender-segregated buses if they want. But those buses must be clearly marked so that a woman has the choice not to board the bus and an un-segregated bus must travel the same route.” IRAC expects the Ministry of Transportation committee to adopt these demands for whatever legislation is ultimately enacted.