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article imageOp-Ed: Sex-segregated buses in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities

By JohnThomas Didymus     Nov 13, 2011 in World
Brooklyn - Recently, an article in 'The Forward', focused on a private firm receiving funds from the New York State Department of Transportation while maintaining sex-segregated commuter bus operation on routes between Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn.
The recent controversy over sex-segregated commuter bus service in the New York Hasidic community began in October, when two women, a reporter for The New York World Sasha Chavkin, and her friend Melissa Franchy, boarded a B110 plying the route between Williamsburg to Boro Park, to find out what will happen if Franchy violated the segregation rule.
A Hasidic Jewish man approached Franchy and demanded she sit at the back because "women sit at the back on this bus and men sit in the front."
Franchy wanted to know why. All that the Hasidic Jew could say was, "Well, that's the rule because this is a private Jewish bus."
After the The New York World reported on the incident, the operators of the route agreed to end the enforced segregation, although it was a private bus company that was not receiving public funds, only paying franchise to New York City to run the commuter service.
But on November 4, The Forward in collaboration with The New York World, reported the case of a commuter bus service run by Monroe Bus, a private firm that received $1.6 million government funding between 2009 and 2010 to operate commuter bus service between Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel Jewish community. In the journey from Boro Park to Kiryas Jeol, the female reporter was asked to move, but when she refused no one tried to enforce the rule. In the journey from Kiryas Joel back to Brooklyn, a few days later, no one asked her to move, but the reporter noted that the buses had curtains separating the male and female passenger seats.
Observers have noted that in recent times, segregation of sexes in public places in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities is increasing. There is controversy over the legal implications of such practice. Some say that the trend in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community contravenes New York's Civil rights laws. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The Forward:
“That practice is unlawful...You can’t require separate sections for men and women any more than you can based on race or national origin.”
Theodore Shaw, Columbia Law School professor and former director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational fund agreed with Lieberman:
“Even if they don’t enforce it strictly, if you get onto the bus and have to deal with the question of whether or not you get to sit with men or women… I think it raises some questions...If they were challenged [in court], I doubt they could prevail. I think they would have to stop the practice.”
The Forward reported that Cole Durham, director of the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, disagreed with Lieberman and Shaw. He argued that there are circumstances in which "reasonable accommodation" should be made for religious beliefs. Durham argued:
“If there’s reasonable seating elsewhere that’s not aimed at discrimination or causing disparagement of the other individuals, it seems that we want in our society to have room for religious groups as well as secular groups."
Durham argued that if "reasonable accommodation" is not made for Ultra-Orthodox passengers, they might feel unable to use public buses. He said:
“Denying it may mean that they don’t have any access to the public transportation system, which is actually discrimination against them...So you have to ask which is the greater form of discrimination.”
National Public Radio reported that Shulem Deen, a former Hasidic Jew, and editor of Unpious.com, confirms that the practice is based on Jewish religious rules of modesty. Ultra-Orthodox tradition prescribes that the sexes be segregated in public life. Deen says strict observance of the rule forbids men socializing with women in public, and some even say it is wrong for a man to look at a woman in public. Deen says sex-segregation in New York Hasidic Jewish communities is rising:
"It's become more codified...Now you have signs on the streets, telling you, 'Women, please step aside from men,' whereas in the past, that never would have been necessary."
Durham's defense of sex-segregation in the Ultra-Orthodox society seems dishonestly self-serving. It seems to suggest that a fact of discrimination may be justified on religious grounds. In the strongly patriarchal culture of Hasidic Jews, sex-segregation operates exactly as race-segregation does. It victimizes women by isolating them, in public life, from the dominant group, the men. Social segregation facilitates perpetuation of second class status of a disadvantaged group in society, because it provides powerfully effective means for blocking access of members of the disadvantaged group to the social circles in which power is exercised.
There are no better religious grounds for "reasonable accommodation" of sex-segregation than there are for race-segregation. The alienating effect of sex-segregation in public places on women, especially in male-dominated society, is such that governments have the duty to interfere even with private institutions and businesses providing essential services to the public but discriminating on the basis of sex to obvious social disadvantage of women.
The message must be made clear to religious fundamentalists of all creeds and sects that while secular society guarantees their religious freedom, under no circumstance will they be allowed to exercise such freedom at the expense of others.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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