by Sarah Imhoff
Earlier this month, the B110 bus route raised hackles. The bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, serves a largely Hasidic Jewish ridership. On the bus, as in Hasidic communities more generally, physical contact between men and women is considered immodest and impious. Men, therefore, sit in the front while women must sit in the back of the bus. (Placing men in the back and women in the front, many have argued, would violate the rule in the canonical Shulhan Aruch which states that a man should prefer to walk behind a lion than behind a woman.) The practice became news not because Hasidic bus segregation is anything new (it isn’t), but rather because the bus company leases the route from city. The aptly-named Private Transportation Company is therefore required to follow the city’s anti-discrimination laws. After receiving several complaints from non-Hasidic women who had ridden the bus, the NYDOT sent a sternly worded letter to the company, which read, in part: “Please be advised that a practice of requiring women to ride in the back, or allowing passengers to harass women who choose to ride in any part of the bus, is not permitted on franchise buses, [and] would constitute a direct violation of your franchise agreement and may lead to termination of that agreement.” (You can read the whole letter here.)
The most interesting facet of the story is not the existence of the practice—it is common on private Jewish buses catering to Hasidim in both the US and Israel—but the way the news coverage confronts the issue. Two aspects are particularly notable: first, the struggle to situate the Hasidic women within a political tradition of individual choice and liberalism (in the Enlightenment sense, rather than contemporary partisan sense), and second, the implicit comparison of sexism and racism.
The reflexive reaction to the story is that the women bus riders must be against the policy. The woman who filed the initial complaint certainly falls into this category. Later, CBS sent one of its female correspondents to test the reactions of the B110 bus riders and drivers, and the coverage expressed similar assumptions. But the coverage generally ignores the fact that the vast majority of these bus riders are Hasidic, and most of the Hasidic women who ride the bus say that they do want to segregate themselves. One woman commenter on Matsav wrote: “As far as I am concerned, it ALLOWS us to sit in the back, separate from the men. I wish there was more available so I could be in New York more comfortable.” Her perspective is typical of most of the women in the Hasidic community; they prefer sex segregation even if it means having to sit in the back because it allows them to conform more closely to religious ideals of modesty.
If we were to acknowledge that these Hasidic women are choosing a social arrangement that appears to us as unfair segregation, then we find ourselves in a bind. Our interpretive choices become either ascribing to them some sort of false consciousness (they don’t really know what they want) or paternalism (we know what’s best for them even though they can’t see it). And either of these positions denies liberalism’s tenet of individual choice and self-determination.
Let me be clear: I am neither advocating nor denigrating the Hasidic tradition of separating sexes. Debating the issue of whether or not women should ride in the back of the bus is moot in this instance. Because of Private Transportation Company’s city contract, it is illegal to continue enforcing the practice. But the events raise the challenge of how to interpret religious freedom when it seems as if women are agreeing to their own subjugation. (In academic spheres, Saba Mahmood and Marie Griffith have both tackled this complex question in Muslim and Christian communities, respectively.)
The second theme running throughout media coverage of the event has been the unreflective parallelism between racism and the B110 incidents. Perhaps this should have been predictable. Ask any American high school student, and she will tell you that we all associate Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott with the “back of the bus” genre of segregation. In the comments section of almost every online article, commenters mention Rosa Parks, and New York-based blog Gothamist writes: “Women get the Rosa Parks treatment.” But what do we learn from comparing racism to this instance of what may appear to be sexism? Does it really help illuminate either phenomenon? Can this instance of sex segregation according to the laws of a minority religious community be compared to a racism that permeated an entire national culture and was enshrined in law? Certainly, both involve buses and charges of “second-class citizenship,” and point to the falseness of “separate but equal.” Yet the scope and motivation for the two are quite different, and the idea that one kind of discrimination is substitutable for another (here, sexism for racism) can obscure the important differences in the ways cultural discriminations operate.