Israeli “kosher” buses: ladies to the back, and no trousers!

January 15, 2008

Ultra-Orthodox men in an Israeli bus, 14 Jan 2008/Gil Cohen MagenShould public bus companies in Israel be allowed to run “kosher” routes where women passengers must sit in the back and are frowned on for wearing trousers? Israel’s High Court is expected to decide this week on a case brought against them by women who say they have been “bullied in the name of God” on these buses for not following the ultra-Orthodox custom of separating men and women in public.

The controversy has been bubbling for several years. It started when the public bus companies introduced the “mehadrin” (strict kosher) lines to compete with private companies who introduced separate seating in buses that passed through ultra-Orthodox areas. My feature today interviews angry women passengers and defenders of the system.

Bus stop in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, 14 Jan, 2008/Gil Cohen MagenReporting in Israel occasionally throws journalists into the middle of the tension between deeply religious and secularist Israelis. I live in a broadly secular neighbourhood of Jerusalem and drive a car, so have never taken the “kosher” buses. The first time I went to Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem, I took care to wear loose clothing with long sleeves that seemed sure to pass the modesty test. But I hadn’t realised trousers were a no-no too. The placards nailed up around the area listing exactly what clothing was out of bounds soon made that clear.

So I’ll ask a woman for a quote, I thought. When I did, though, she shook her head and pointed to her husband. He grabbed his young son’s hand, shielded his eyes and swept past me with his long black coat.

Man and women wait separately at bus shelter in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, 14 Jan 2008/Gil Cohen MagenFeeling more self-conscious by the minute, I tried talking to a few more men and women with a male colleague at my side. No one would answer my questions. Our Israeli cameraman Eli laughed and suggested he do the interviews on my behalf.

“Next time,” he added, “wear a skirt.”

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