Like a school of hungry piranhas, the secular media seems to have discovered misogyny in the Chasidic world and they’re having themselves a feast. First, sites like Gothamist and Gawker discovered the signs in Williamsburg urging women to step aside for men. And last week, just as Chasidim were preparing to shut down for a three-day holiday, the New York World gave the world a shocking revelation: The B110 line, the four-decades-old bus route known as “the Williamsburg-Boro Park bus,” has sex-segregated seating. As we say in Williamsburg, “Git morgen!”
Now every major media outlet seems to have picked up on the story, and suddenly it appears — at least to those of us who follow such things obsessively — as if the world found a new cause célèbre: Let’s learn the Chasidim something about civil rights and the evils of discrimination. Wonderful idea.
But my honest opinion? It’s a brouhaha that matters little. Not because shoving women to the back of the bus is okay; it is nothing if not deeply offensive to anyone with basic respect for human dignity. And while the back of the bus might be a perfectly fine place to ride if one chooses it, in this case it is clearly indicative of the misogyny endemic to the Chasidic – and to some extent the broader Orthodox – world. Still and all, the mercurial indignation of liberal-minded New Yorkers is something I take great pleasure in rolling my eyes at, and this particular incident sends my eyes rolling at top speed.
There was a time – nisht mehr gedacht – when I was married to an ehrlich Chasidish veibel, who was very much insistent on doing things the right way. At one point, as a newly conscientious member of civilized society, I thought that if I couldn’t repair the world, I could at least start by doing away with sex-segregation in our own family minivan.
In the Skver shtetl, where I was living at the time, women were expected to sit in the back of whatever vehicle they were riding in, even if it was the family car. With a burgeoning itch for defying our cultural norms – and, to be honest, perhaps a little indignant that my own wife preferred to keep that symbolic space between us – I declared that as far as I was concerned she was entitled to her rightful place in the front passenger seat of our Honda Odyssey. It wouldn’t be an act of great rebellion; heavens, I wasn’t suggesting that she drive the car, only that we flip a very gentle middle finger to the Neanderthals who sought to control every aspect of our lives. My then-aishes chayil didn’t see the point and insisted, thank you very much, that the back of the car was just fine. It was where she felt most comfortable, and she wished, for godssakes, that I would just drop it.
My wife did join me in the front eventually, after much coaxing, more for the sake of familial harmony than anything else. But I learned a lesson then, which was only reinforced several years later, when I tried – unsuccessfully – to convince her to get her own driver’s license: You can’t shove victim-consciousness down anyone’s throat.
As far as I am aware, there isn’t much formal data about Chasidic women and their willingness – or lack thereof – to live their lives as second-class citizens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are many who resent it, but there are also many – perhaps most – who see it as just another one of the million idiosyncrasies of their already highly restrictive lives. (Oddly, I know more Modern Orthodox women who resent the waist-level mechitza in MO shuls than Chasidic women who resent their place in the back of the bus.)
Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that female leaders in the Chasidic world are just as insistent on institutionalized sex-segregation as their male counterparts. Witness the various rebbetzins who talk about nothing but tznius, and the various girls’ school principals who send heavy tomes each semester with careful lists of colors, brand names, accessories and of course garment types that are prohibited to their student body. Some will argue, of course, that female leaders take their cues from the male leaders, but that’s beside the point. The point is, consciousness about discrimination has to take root, first and foremost, in the minds of those discriminated against before it can be effectively dealt with.
It is indeed unfortunate that the apologia about women’s roles in Chasidic society is so ingrained that women themselves are often complicit in perpetuating it. But if Chasidic women aren’t moved to be outraged by the state of affairs, what, pray tell, can anyone do about it?
The media can of course make a big tzimmes about this bus and its segregation. They can get the government involved, send angry letters of protest to the bus company, have the mayor stamp his foot very firmly on the steps of City Hall. What will happen then? Nothing at all. Yes, the bus company might remove the signs that tell women to move to the back. Yes, passengers might learn that if a non-Chasidic woman gets on the bus, it’s best to be quiet because she might be one of those evil journalists who’ve come to shame them. But other than that, Chasidic men will continue to send women to the back. And, just as importantly, Chasidic women will send men to the front as well — as happened once to one friend of mine, a smart-ass secular guy who thought he’d go sit in the back among the women; he was promptly told to move his chameraizel ass.
We might say that despite our inability to effect change, the practice is unjust and we should welcome the outrage of the outside world. And there, I believe, is the problem.
The outrage of outsiders won’t effect change largely because outsiders don’t seem to actually care about the plight of Chasidic women. Rather, they seem driven by a general distaste for all things Chasidic and, in this case, by the larger symbolism of back-of-the-bus discrimination. To them, Chasidic women are pawns in a larger struggle to root out discrimination everywhere, a worthy cause, no doubt, but one that Chasidic women, by and large, will not care for. Moreover, outsider outrage produces a defensive posture within the Chasidic community – on the part of both men and women – and speaking out against discriminatory practices, even by the tiny minority who might do so otherwise, becomes even more unlikely. I have yet to see those indignant outsiders bother to speak to actual living, breathing Chasidic women (or men, for that matter) to gauge how they feel about it. This outrage, therefore, is nothing but a projection of their own feelings and beliefs onto the women in the Chasidic community, imagining that they too must feel this way. And if they don’t, then they should. This is particularly true of those who call for the city to shut down the bus line. Here’s the reality that these advocates don’t bother considering: Shut it down and chances are that these poor women’s lives will only become all the more difficult.
In the end, I believe it is wrong to deny agency for Chasidic women, as if the world knows what is best for them better than they do. Rather, it is Chasidic women, first and foremost, who need to speak out — be it about sex-segregation on buses or the many other issues that affect them. Those women who feel aggrieved should knock down the doors of every ruv and rebbetzin and tell them how they really feel. Those with Internet access should swarm every Internet message board, every blog, and every comments section of every news article on this issue to register their outrage over how they are treated. They should speak out against signs telling them to step aside for men, refuse to be shuttered into their kitchens and veiber shiels, give a piece of their mind to any man who tells them to sit anywhere but where they themselves freely choose, and insist that, for goodness sakes, they too can study a blatt gemureh with Rishonim and Achronim if they so wish. For now, the public hears only from those who adamantly claim that they do not object to their status, that they do not feel subjugated or demeaned, but respected and empowered. A load of crock, you and I might say, and, at least in my opinion, we’re right. But that’s neither here nor there.
Marx was right about class-consciousness, and history bears him out. There would be no civil rights movement if African Americans weren’t themselves driven to protest. The same goes for women’s lib, the fight against anti-Semitism, and more recently, efforts to battle Islamophobia.
Those who are wronged must speak up. And the time has come for Chasidic women to do the same.Printable Version