Zahava Fisher recalls being horrified by a newspaper article in 2006 about Israel’s recently introduced gender segregated bus lines. She said, “It was about a woman from Har Nof in Jerusalem, a neighbor of mine, who had been beaten up when returning home from prayers at the Kotel because she sat in the front of the bus.”
Fisher who was then a member of the management committee of NIF grantee Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum recalls she was incensed, not only by the violence, but by the attempt to humiliate and repress women in the name of Judaism. She began working with her colleagues at Kolech, which fights for women’s rights and equality in the Orthodox community, within the framework of Halacha – Jewish Law.
She said, “I remember talking to an 80 year-old neighbor who could barely get on the bus and would always sit near the driver who would help her get on and off. She said scornful young men would come over and shout at her, and she would tell them she was not strong enough to reach the back of the bus. One contemptuous man made fun of her and said, ‘I suppose for the same reason you have to sit with the men in the synagogue.”
Fisher recalls her sense of satisfaction in 2008 when veteran NIF grantee Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform) petitioned the High Court of Justice against segregated bus lines.
She said, “I was very disappointed that the High Court of Justice did not immediately point out that segregation is unacceptable and rule against segregated buses. Whether it is Blacks like Rosa Parks being asked to sit at the back of the bus in the US, or women being asked to sit at the back of the bus in Israel, we cannot accept segregation.”
A published writer and poet, Fisher wrote the following op-ed article at the time, “Say No to Kosher Buses,” for Y-Net.
She also made copies of a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the 20th century’s foremost halachic commentators, permitting mixed seating on public transportation on the grounds that this was not erotic contact, and saying that any man who experienced it as such has problems.
Fisher said, “I am not aware of a single eminent rabbi who has ever ruled that there must be gender segregation in public places. Even the separation of men and women in Orthodox synagogues is a matter of custom rather than halacha.”
Fisher, an Orthodox mother of five, said that she personally prefers praying only among women but that is her individual choice.
Ultimately insists Fisher this issue is not about religion, or even an inability of men to resist their own erotic thoughts and take responsibility for their behavior, but rather an attempt by Ultra-Orthodox men to control and repress their women.
She said, “The position of women in the Ultra-Orthodox community is very strong because frequently they are supporting the family financially, while the men study. So pushing women to the back of the bus is a way of putting them in their place. But if they get away with this, everywhere will soon be segregated – restaurants and even sidewalks.”
Fisher was delighted when the Ministry of Transport committee ruled in October that gender segregated buses are illegal. She said, “I was disappointed when the High Court of Justice petition only asked the Ministry of Transport to regulate the matter. But it now looks like we will get more and they will prohibit gender segregation.”
One Woman’s Rebellion – Chana is a former senior executive with Kolech who regularly travels on a segregated bus insists on sitting up front in the “men’s section.”
She recalls, “The first time I was on the bus I did not even realize it was segregated and I sat just behind the driver as I prefer. An Ultra-Orthodox man came straight over and said to me ‘get to the back.’ Why, I asked? Because that’s what the rabbis have ruled, he said and there is an agreement with the bus company. I asked the driver if this was so and he said there was no such agreement. So I said I was staying put.”
She adds, “From then on, and on future journeys, I was harassed and had practically everything done to me except for actual physical violence. If I spoke on my cellular phone, men would shout and curse at me so I couldn’t hold a conversation. Men would claim I was starting something with them. They would tell me I was sinful. If it was cold and raining people would open the window next to me so I would freeze. They would say to each other in Yiddish, which I understand, that they must find out where I live and deal with me.”
Chana says, “I always felt these men were capable of violence. I would sit there among the men looking strong and confident, but all the time I felt alone and scared.”