By Sarah Sullivan, IRAC Communications Intern
Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to get out of the IRAC office and take part in a “freedom rider” campaign with IRAC staff and student volunteers to launch the “Grab a Spot” initiative. In this initiative, female students from Hebrew University will ride public buses in Haredi neighborhoods to ensure that gender segregation is not being forced on passengers. As an intern at IRAC, I have been aware of many issues of segregation, and I was eager to have the opportunity to actually see the situation for myself.
At 8:15 in the morning, a group of about nine of us met to take a segregated bus to the meeting point, where we would join with the rest of the group. When the bus arrived, it was nearly empty, and all of us selected seats in the front of the bus. As other people boarded bus, we got many strange looks from the men and were largely ignored by the women. I have heard it said many times that there is power in numbers, and for the first time on that bus, I saw how true that could be. Had I been sitting alone in the front of the bus, I would have been very nervous.
In some communities in Jerusalem, women are very much second-class citizens. Nowhere is this clearer than on Mehadrin buses, gender-segregated buses that operate mostly in Haredi communities. On these buses, women are forced to board and sit only in the back. Rosa Parks would be outraged.
Six months ago, the Supreme Court ruled in one of IRAC’s cases that this kind of segregation on public buses is illegal. IRAC volunteers have continued to ride these bus lines to monitor the situation on the buses. While we have generally seen improvement, we are still receiving complaints from women who have been harassed for sitting in the front of the bus.
Seeing segregation happen in person was much more powerful than reading about it. Most of the Haredi men who boarded the bus remained either in the first row of the bus or crowded together by the bus entrance. They would not even stand on the bus in an area where we were sitting. While no Haredi women sat at the front with us, several of them did board the bus from the front door.
On paper, you don’t get the same feeling of discomfort that you get when actually sitting on one of these buses. It is hard to believe that in 2011, in a country like Israel, there is forced segregation on public buses. As a lifelong New Yorker, I am no stranger to public transportation. I’ve spent a lot of time on subways and buses. If segregated buses were a reality for me every day, I would not be brave enough to sit in the front alone. I truly empathize with the women who face this treatment every time they need to take the bus.
We were a much larger group on the way back—there were over 40 of us including press and many members of IRAC’s staff. Because we took up the majority of the bus, the segregation among other passengers was hardly noticeable. I did, however, notice one woman and her child sitting in the very first row of seats. If our being there contributed to her feeling comfortable enough to sit there, that alone makes our “freedom rider” campaign worthwhile.