Yesterday, we were directly involved in one of the biggest women rights movement in Jerusalem. The Israel Religious Action Center hosted us in one of their famous Freedom Rides, which entails getting on a bus line that runs through Ultra-Orthadox neighborhoods, in an attempt to help empower women to sit wherever they want on a bus that is segregated through social implications.
Gender discrimination and segregation is one of the main human rights issues in Jerusalem today. Although conditions are getting better for Ultra-Orthodox women, they continue to live in a community where their voices are not heard. The community leaders are Rabbis, and their husbands spend all of their time studying religious texts, while mothers must manage their children (households averaging 6.8) and work to support their family. Even though they play a humongous role as the provider, men in their community continue to enforce bus segregation illegally.They claim that women and men must be segregated to enforce modesty, and along with buses have attempted to separate sidewalks and streets so that they cannot even see the women (who are already covered from head to toe in clothing). Israel recognizes the Ultra-Orthodox communities and does as much as it can to not interfere with their religious beliefs, but the fact is that public bus lines cannot be segregated.
Through testimonials and careful research, IRAC has taken it upon themselves to be the facilitators of this segregation since many on the women are afraid to follow Israeli law over their communal law.
6 of us loaded on to the bus, after the driver inquired “why we were trying to cause trouble.”
The bus was empty and we dispersed ourselves strategically in the front area, Marie and Kamilah courageously sitting in the very front row (one on each side).
The ride began and we quietly awaited the bus to fill up along the long route ahead.
A few women got on taking seats in the middle/back area. Then another-to the back. Three more- to the back. Then one- In the front.
It continued like this, until the flow of men increased.
A few more women sat next to us in the front, some who were originally sitting in the front moved to the back, and it seemed the men were slightly thrown off.
I watched one man get on the bus, eying the seat next to Marie only to realize he was not in control of this seating arrangement. Many men stayed standing.
They began to coagulate near the middle section, careful not to get too close to any female.
At this point I was skeptical of our mission- There was not much chaos, so perhaps women have been taking more initiative lately (after all they were comfortably sitting across from us, reading or making phone calls). For a minute thought that this whole gig might have been a hoax-until I saw it- The same exact bus line (56) passed in the opposite direction; It was absolutely packed, the front half blacked out with Ultra-Orthodox men in their suits and hats, while the back half was loaded with Ultra-Orthodox women.
At the end of the ride, our bus was also full of people, with the Orthodox men in a confused clump in the middle of the bus, with no control over the women or where they chose to seat on their public bus ride. It was overall quite a satisfying experience and I am quite certain we made, even if it was miniscule, a difference.