Thursday, July 31, 2008

Are Charedi women at the back of the bus the modern-day Rosa Parks?

About a month ago I wrote about a directive, issued by the Rabbinical Transportation Committee, calling on Charedi women to sit at the back of the bus.

The Forward picked up on this last week, and adds an interesting angle to the story. The move towards segregated bus lines, it says,

has sparked a row over who may lay claim to the legacy of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who famously refused to obey an Alabama bus driver’s order to give her seat to a white passenger. Opponents of segregation say the mantle is theirs. But enthusiasts for segregation have begun to argue that by making their way to the back of the bus, they are actually Parks’s heirs.

“I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks,” said writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation. “We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment.”

Later in the story it quotes a woman petitioning against the separate seating:

A co-petitioner, Chana Pasternak, director of the Modern Orthodox women’s organization Kolech, said it was “impossible in the 21st century to justify discriminating against women like this.” She added, “I feel the need to take a stand, like Rosa Parks.”

Strictly speaking, of course, Pasternak is the true heir of Rosa Parks - who would probably be horrified that women anywhere (of any colour) were invoking her name to justify segregation. But I do get Leibowitz's Schmidt point that she, in her own mind at least, is fighting to retain her dignity.

Nevertheless, I wonder if shaping the debate around Rosa Parks is to completely miss the point.

Parks is a very American icon; her name and her struggle would mean nothing to the great majority of Israeli women whose lives this is actually about.

But more than that, Parks took her stand spontaneously, of her own volition, in a moment of deep conviction (although she was, admittedly, an advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] youth council, which was looking for a case just like this in order to challenge bus segregation laws).

Ms Leibowitz Schmidt notwithstanding, how much of the push to get Charedi women sitting at the back of the bus is coming from women - and how much from the men? Is this a cause women actually wanted and were behind - or are they adjusting to, and adopting, and justifying, what is becoming a new social norm, at the insistence of men, more out of inertia than anything else?

Particularly as we already know what can happen to women who decide they prefer to sit at the front of the bus, after all.

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