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Sunday, 3 February 2008

IRAC Update - The Women Sent to the Back of the Bus

Dear Friend of the Israel Religious Action Center,
For the past twenty years a photograph of Rosa Parks has hung over my
desk. The photograph, taken in 1955, shows a policeman taking her
fingerprints. The title of the photo is Women Who Dared. In this week's
story, IRAC stands up for women who dare to sit in the front of the bus.

Women Sent to the Back of the Bus
One warm July day, a middle aged woman boarded an empty bus on her way
home. Exhausted, she took a seat in the front of the bus. After several
stops, the few men who boarded the bus after her, approached her and
demanded, with increasing hostility, that she move to the back of the
bus. Their voices grew louder, yet she refused to budge. Several of the
men began pushing her aggressively and a couple even hit her. They
yelled, shoved, cursed and threatened the woman, who remained seated in
her chosen seat in the front of the bus. Throughout the entire bus ride,
no one, including the driver, interfered on behalf of the woman.
You must think you have heard this story dozens of times. Yet the year
is not 1955, the location is not Montgomery, Alabama, and the woman, is
not Rosa Parks. This story is happening in Jerusalem in 2007 and this is
the personal story of an Orthodox novelist, Naomi Ragen. Ragen, and
another five women of all ages and religious affiliations, have been
harassed by Haredi men for refusing to move to the back of the bus or
for being allegedly dressed immodestly. Regan, a religious woman
herself, refused to give up her seat, claiming that there was neither a
sign indicating that the bus was gender segregated nor any basis in
halakha (Jewish law) for such a demand. She suffered from severe
harassment and violent behavior throughout her entire trip home. In
another instance, a woman was not allowed on a bus for wearing jeans and
a short sleeved shirt on a summer day. All these women, and probably
hundreds of other men and women who were too afraid to report similar
incidents, were profoundly disturbed and emotionally distressed by their

IRAC's Petition against Gender Segregated Buses
On January 24, 2007, IRAC filed a petition, on behalf of Naomi Ragen and
five other women, against the State owned and operated Egged bus company
and the Ministry of Transportation regarding numerous offenses against
women committed on their buses. Egged has designated more than 30 lines
as ultra- orthodox, called "Mehadrin Lines", where women, in accordance
with ultra-orthodox practice, are expected to dress "modestly," enter
through the rear door, and then sit at the back of the bus. These buses
are effectively segregated. Though these regulations are not explicitly
delineated, they have been accepted as a sort of customary law or
unspoken rule by both Egged and much of these lines' rider-ship. Those
who refuse to ride on these 30 segregated lines, 23 of which run on
major intercity routes, must often take multiple buses and pay higher
fares to reach the same destination. As such, these ultra-orthodox lines
violate not only the rights of women, but also the right to be free from
religious coercion.

Bus Route to the Supreme Court
On January 14th, after a long and fruitless correspondence with the
Egged bus company and the Ministry of Transportation, IRAC appeared in
front of Israel's Supreme Court to argue against discrimination and
religious coercion. The Egged bus company and the Ministry of
Transportation denied any form of discrimination and claimed that the
entire arrangement of segregated seating and "proper" dress code was
voluntary rather than coerced. IRAC asserted that the latter claim was
rather absurd, taking into consideration that IRAC's six clients all
suffered some form of verbal of physical abuse in their various
interactions with the Mehadrin bus lines. It is vital to note that IRAC
did not argue against the existence of Mehadrin bus lines. In the spirit
of religious pluralism, IRAC fully supports the right of the Haredi
sector for appropriate accommodations which correspond with their world
view and way of life. With this said, IRAC strongly believes that there
is simply no justification for blatant discrimination and violence.
Currently however, the segregation on Mehadrin bus lines comes in the
form of religious coercion rather than a free choice which is being
supported by the State. Furthermore, these bus lines are often the best
and even sole method of transportation to certain destinations. Our case
proposes that it is unacceptable that the State offers no alternative
means of transportation for individuals who do not wish to comply with
the Mehadrin bus line rules of "modesty". IRAC argued that Egged and the
Ministry of Transportation must take an active role in securing the
safety and comfort of the passengers, by instructing the drivers to
prevent incidents of violence and by allocating further resources to
secure a regular bus line to travel the same route as the Mehadrin bus line.

The Supreme Court was very sympathetic to IRAC's claims. His Honor,
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, criticized the Ministry of Transportation
and the Egged bus company for its indifference and negligence and for
not taking a harsher stand against violent religious coercion on busses.
Justice Rubinstein also asserted that it is unacceptable for a driver
not to let a woman who is wearing trousers on the bus, since trousers
are considered "immodest" by the ultra-Orthodox community. The Justices
agreed unanimously that there is a compelling need to find a solution to
this predicament.

Heading in the Right Direction
On January 21st IRAC received the Supreme Court's ruling on the
Segregation on Busses case. The Supreme Court recognized that severe
harm was caused to IRAC's clients and the Ministry of Transportation and
the Egged bus company failed to protect the passengers and to secure
their rights. Furthermore, the Supreme Court urged the Ministry of
Transportation to establish a Forum that will review and analyze the
current situation and draw appropriate conclusions in a manner that best
serves all individuals involved. The Supreme Court argued that there are
lessons to be learned from IRAC's petition, which raised valid questions
about the allegedly voluntary nature of the segregation in Mehadrin
busses: the fact that many of the busses are not marked as Mehadrin
busses; the role of the driver in case of a controversy; and the lack of
alternative transportation means for those who do not wish to use the
Mehadrin busses.

IRAC's petition raised substantive concerns regarding the violation of
women's rights and religious coercion on Mehadrin busses. IRAC was glad
to see that the Supreme Court of Israel was able to recognize the
absurdity behind the claim that the segregation on busses is voluntary
and to condemn the violent behavior of the Haredi men as well as the
negligent response of the Ministry of Transportation and the Egged bus
company to such appalling behavior. IRAC hopes that the Ministry of
Transportation will adopt the recommendations of the Supreme Court and
will soon establish the Forum whose members will be non-bias officials
seeking to insure the safety and comfort of all passengers regardless of
gender and religious affiliation.

Court quizzes state over segregated buses
By Dan Izenberg, Jerusalem Post
The High Court of Justice on Monday asked tough questions of the
Ministry of Transportation during a hearing on a petition filed by five
women and the Israel Religious Action Center against the unregulated use
of segregated buses by the Egged and Dan bus companies.
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