Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Israel 'back of the bus' rule sparks religious row (Reuters)
Every time Israeli student Iris Yoffe takes the bus to Jerusalem, she has to be ready for abuse from ultra-Orthodox Jews who say she should be kept off because she's wearing trousers.

Assuming she makes it onto the bus at all -- on several occasions groups of Orthodox men have tried to block the door -- Yoffe, 24, heads for the "women's section" at the back of the bus, keeps her head down and tries to ignore the insults.

"I end up feeling helpless and humiliated, like an outsider," said Yoffe, whose public bus from her home in northern Israel to Jerusalem has separate male and female seating because it runs through an ultra-Orthodox community.

A row over Israel's buses underscores the schism between its ultra-Orthodox minority -- who believe women should don long skirts and stay away from men in public -- and those who want to keep the country, and its public transport system, secular.

The controversy started several years ago when, in order to compete with private firms, Israel's publicly funded bus companies introduced separate seating on some routes through Orthodox areas. Women who board these buses sit at the back.

In theory, wearing a skirt and sitting in the women's section is voluntary, but several secular women including a well-known author have reported being abused and even attacked for not doing so.

Israel's High Court is expected to rule this week on a petition by a group of women who want the government and public bus companies either to stop the "mehadrin" lines or to provide alternative buses on those routes.

"The partition between men and women is being taken from the synagogue into public spaces," said Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Reform Judaism movement, which helped bring the lawsuit.

Hoffman is worried that "partition" could make further inroads into public life, saying one post office in an Orthodox neighbourhood has separate waiting lines for men and women.

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