Saying 'No' to the Back of the Bus

In Japan, it seems, there are some women-only buses. They were established, according to journalist Chani Luz, to protect women from “groping men.” Luz, who writes for the Orthodox publications Makor Rishon and Hatzofe, supports women-only buses in Israel because, as she recalled in a recent Ynet column, she was once molested on a bus when she was in 12th grade. “An older man sat next to me on the bus from Rehovot to Ramle and did not stop putting his hand on me and making indecent proposals,” she wrote. “I wanted to get up but I froze in my seat until the end of the ride.” Luz thus concludes that feminists should be in favor of separate buses.

Gender-segregated buses, with men in the front and women in the back, are currently a burning issue in Israel, as Transport Minister Israel Katz has until December 27 to rule on whether or not gender-segregated buses in Israel are, in his opinion, legal.

“Women to the back of the bus” has been a growing trend over the past 10–15 years in Israel. I experienced being sent to the back of a bus back at Bar-Ilan University (coming from Bnei Brak) back in 1995, as I boarded the bus with a toddler asleep on my shoulder. One man started getting up for me but the man next to him pulled him by the sleeve and implored him not to. As the bus pulled onto the highway, I was still on my feet, making my way towards the crowded women’s section while trying to hold my child and maintain my balance. A nice (secular) woman eventually got up for me.

Many women, myself included, have been writing about this issue for some time already. Author Naomi Ragen declared, “I am not sitting on the back of the bus,” joined a suit with the Centre for Jewish Pluralism against Dan and Egged bus lines that is at the heart of the current debate, and recently shared some horror stories in Jewish Ideas:

Miriam Shear, a Canadian grandmother who took the number 2 bus to the kotel to pray every day (a bus not designated mehadrin by the way) who took a front seat and refused to move, was spat upon, had her head covering torn off, and was thrown to the ground and beaten by men in ultra-Orthodox clothing who apparently had fewer scruples about negiah…A pregnant woman got on the 318 midnight bus from B’nai Brak to Rehovot. She sat in the front because of motion sickness, explaining this to the other passengers. One Hareidi man stopped the bus by standing with one foot outside and one on the step up so the driver couldn’t close the door. The woman finally fled into the street in the middle of the night…A young woman on the midnight bus from Safed to Afula boarded wearing pants, and had to fight with the driver and other passengers who insisted that she be thrown off the bus in the middle of the road. A grandmother helping her son and grandchildren to board a bus in Beit Shemesh through the front door was attacked and cursed.

Yet, with all this degradation and humiliation of women, there are still some misguided voices, like that of Luz, calling for women to support segregation in the name of protecting women.

Let’s not confuse the issues. The haredi movement for gender segregation is not about real protection of women from men, but about illusory protection of men from women. Women are being asked to remove themselves from what is now considered a man’s domain. The bus is de facto a man’s space, with women as an afterthought. Women will wait, women will stand in the back, women will squash, women will cover up, women will remain silent. Women will accommodate a society that seeks to erase women from its midst. Erasing photos of women in the newspaper, erasing women cabinet members, physically and materially making women cover up and be seen as little as possible.

Let us not punish all women because Luz was molested by a man 20 years ago. Women have been molested on the street, in medical offices, on elevators, and probably in every conceivable location. The solution is NOT to punish women by removing them from public spaces.

So while there is undoubtedly a need to protect women from sexual assault, let us not delude ourselves that this is what we’re talking about here. Gender segregation on buses, on planes, in shops, at hospitals, or at cemeteries is not about making women-only spaces; it’s about making women-free spaces. We must reject that unequivocally, and say No! to the back of the bus.

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