Sunday, February 18, 2007

Empowering Women

Most readers have probably heard about the woman in Jerusalem who was beaten because she refused to move to the back of the bus (link). In short, there is a growing trend of buses with separate seating, where men sit in the front and women in the back. While I do not believe that this is required by Jewish law, others can disagree and there is certainly room for local custom in this regard. As a woman I know tells me, some women prefer not to sit next to men so this practice suits them well. And it makes sense that women should be in the back of the bus rather than the front, so that men can't stare at them. In my experience, the back of the bus is also the most comfortable and the least crowded.

The problem with the arrangement in Israel is simply that the community there is incapable of controlling its hooligans. This should come as no surprise and has been a growing problem for decades. How widespread is this problem? I don't know. But as long as it exists, women have to be wary. Women and men can be and have been beaten for not being "frum" enough in certain situations.

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt (of Cross Currents) wrote an Op-Ed for JTA in defense of this separate seating, claiming that this seating arrangement empowers women (link). I often sympathize with the plight of apologists (a term that I do not use in a derogatory fashion), who sometimes find themselves defending practices that they find offensive in the name of the greater communal good. Regarding this case, I almost sympathized with Schmidt. But when she claimed that this practice empowers women, she lost me.

Separate seating does not empower women. It doesn't have to weaken them either, if the community is sufficiently responsible. Israeli society is definitely not sufficiently responsible, including (or especially) the Charedi community. I don't claim that women are routinely beaten or humiliated on buses, but anyone who has been in Israel for more than 25 seconds recognizes that politeness... I can't continue this sentence because it is too painful. But you know what I mean.

Separate seating does not empower women. A can of mace and a scream of "Rape! Call the police!" empowers women, and that is what I would recommend for any woman riding the buses in Jerusalem who is not willing to change her seat on demand.

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