Jerusalem’s Rosa Parks

Life has become more difficult for Israeli women recently, thanks to self-declared “modesty patrols.”

In late November, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz broke the story that Miriam Shear, a 50-year-old Orthodox Canadian woman, was verbally harassed and badly beaten on an Egged bus headed to the Western Wall. For several years, Egged, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, has been running mehadrin lines, bus routes with gender-segregated seating, with men in the front of the bus and women in the back. Shear, who refused a demand from a male passenger that she move to the back of an unmarked, non-mehadrin bus, was thrown to the ground, spat at, kicked and slapped, while the driver drove on.

Naomi Ragen, U.S.-born Israeli Orthodox novelist and another victim of abuse in a separate bus-seating fiasco, has had plenty to say about the attacks: “I call this the Taliban lines. They can call it whatever they want. But that, to me, is what they are… and there’s no reason we should have them in Israel.” Ragen, who told National Public Radio that she didn’t intend to be a Jewish Rosa Parks, recounted on the air that an ultra-Orthodox man threatened her when she flatly refused to move to the back of the bus. “I looked him in the eye and said ‘Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it’s written that I’m not allowed to sit in this seat and I’ll move,’” Ragen said. “’Until then, get out of my face!’”

In the ultra-Orthodox Israeli town of B’nei Brak and in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district, merely walking the streets in the wrong clothing can trigger abuse as well. Ha’aretz correspondents have chronicled “bleach undergrounds” in these areas, where ad-hoc gangs of men and women have patrolled the streets with syringes and baby bottles filled with bleach, ready to spray the clothing of anyone who violates their modesty standards. In mid-February, N.P.R. reported that several haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis publicly burned various articles of “immodest” clothing, including see-through stockings.

Women in the ultra-Orthodox areas of Israel are also under siege on a third front. Under the guidance of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, some haredi rabbis have banned continuing education programs for women, claiming that the rabbinate cannot successfully monitor everything these women are being taught. Women might be learning matters considered assur, or forbidden. Furthermore, the accumulation of degrees fosters desires of careerism, threatening to a religious lifestyle. This ban is seen as debilitating to many in the haredi community, where frequently women are the sole breadwinners so that husbands can learn Torah.

While the ultra-Orthodox are clamping down on their rights, women are not taking this passively. Five women have filed a petition to Israel’s High Court claiming that separate seating on buses must be declared illegal. They claim that this should be viewed as discrimination and should not be tolerated. Additionally, women are openly opposing to the “bleach underground” and the educational ban, to foster a climate in which the religious commandments are carried out for a just and equal society safe for all, rather than being used to constrict and degrade half of the population.