Last update - 17:29 24/01/2007
Women ask High Court to stop gender division on public buses
A group of women petitioned the High Court of Justice on Wednesday to order public bus companies to stop telling women to sit in the back of buses running through some ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods.
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews follow teachings that bar any public contact between men and women, and government-subsidized transport companies have recently granted demands to run gender-divided buses along some routes.
The petition was filed by U.S.-born novelist Naomi Ragen, an Orthodox Jew, and five other women, including a representative of the Reform Judaism movement.
Ragen said she was seeking to prevent Israel from "turning into a Taliban country," referring to the former hardline Islamic regime in Afghanistan that barred women from public life.
The petitioners asked the court to instruct the Transportation Ministry to study whether there was a real need for "segregated" buses and, if so, to limit their number and label them as such so that women could choose not board.
Ragen, some of whose books are critical of some Orthodox treatment of women, said she decided to challenge the gender separation on buses
after recently being asked herself by an ultra-Orthodox man to move to the back of a public bus.
A heated argument ensued and she was embarrassed, she told Israel Radio. "They shouted at me. I felt humiliated."
"The driver didnâ€™t even open his mouth to defend me. I got off the bus with a terrible, terrible feeling, that in my country I have to take a public bus home that is under the purview of the Taliban," Ragen added.
Another woman she knew had recently been slapped by a man on a bus for refusing to move to the back, she said.
The court case has put a spotlight on an ever-growing divide between ultra-religious and secular Jews.
It was filed jointly by Jewish women who are Orthodox and Reform, groups that rarely mix in Israeli culture.
The practice of segregating the sexes on public transport has in turn raised the ire of non-observant and more modern Orthodox women increasingly faced with requests from male passengers to give up their seats in the fronts of buses.
Avner Ovadiah, a spokesman for the Transport Ministry, declined comment saying, "We will submit our response to the court."
Ron Ratner, a spokesman for Israelâ€™s largest bus company, Egged, confirmed it had a policy of allowing Orthodox men to sit separately from women on 30 public routes.
Ratner said the practice was consistent with government policy of assisting the countryâ€™s minority ultra-Orthodox population, whose strict religious teachings bar men from having any public contact with women.
"Itâ€™s a market need," Ratner said, adding that members of this sector, also known as haredim, had said they would charter their own private buses, unless public buses answered their demands for gender separation.
Israel Eichler, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper editor and former parliament member, protested against the appeal, calling it a bid "to impose Western secular culture on us, and all that mixing of men and women [in public] has caused."
Eichler said community members needed gender-separated buses mainly due to overcrowding which has created "modesty issues" for men and women who must avoid physical contact in public.