Religious entitlement: Woman takes a stand where the state won’t

They are comparing her to Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. She says she didn’t mean to take a stand but couldn’t back down when faced with a terrifying and unbelievably sexist situation.

On Friday morning, in what continues to be a chain of disturbing events connected to our country’s relationship with religion and public transport, Tanya Rosenblit was all but chucked out of her seat by a pack of angry religious men. “This is our line,” they said, in attempts to justify why Rosenblit should move to the bench at the back of the bus – otherwise known as the “women’s section.”

While the entire story makes my lunch rise to my throat, that line alone is worth pausing over. “Our bus line,” they said. Meaning that Rosenblit, who was appropriately dressed and seated near the driver so that he would be able to tell her when she had reached her stop, should obey their rules. It was an Egged bus that runs between Ashdod and Jerusalem, and a line frequented by both religious and secular passengers. Last time I checked, public transportation belonged to the public, not one sect or another.

In response to similarly uncomfortable situations, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled in January of 2011 that it is illegal to enforce gender segregation on public buses. However, if the buses are clearly marked as segregated so that the passengers may choose whether or not to ride them, the segregation is considered voluntary and thus passable. In short, the driver or bus line can’t officially enforce the segregation. They can just suggest it.

As the situation escalated, both the driver and the police officers called in to mediate the altercation urged Rosenblit to move. And here I find the catch in the high court’s ruling. The place where they completely miss the point. It is enough that a certain sector of the population feels completely entitled to get its way and to marginalizing women, or anyone else for that matter. Beyond that, there doesn’t need to be an official mandate that women must sit at the back of the bus. These men were happy to hold up the bus, to yell and make violent gestures at Rosenblit. In fact, the most dangerous situations often arise from this kind of cowboy, do-it-yourself law. The pack demands to get its way, and once enough people bow to the pack, it becomes expected that any woman will kindly sit at the back of the bus to make way for these self-righteous men.

The last time I flew abroad my flight was delayed by a similar circumstance. A religious man, some 60 years old and large, refused to sit in his assigned chair because a woman was seated beside him. So he sat in someone else’s seat, which happened to belong to the member of a family, and refused to get up no matter what. After many attempts by many members of the flight crew, the man stayed in the seat, and about three-quarters of the remaining passengers were shuffled to new seats. It took almost an hour to unscramble the mess. The man sat perfectly calm, with his eyes closed, exuding entitlement.

I respect that this man and the men on the bus cannot sit next to women (or behind them in the case of the bus). However, if it is your problem, and your choice to live a certain way, shouldn’t it be your responsibility to make sure your needs are met without putting others so far out of their way? If these bus-riders asked Rosenblit to move, and she said no, shouldn’t that have been the point where they decided to wait for the next bus? And why did both the driver and the police officer decide to back them up instead of Rosenblit? In this case, law or no law, Rosenblit was put in an inexcusable and threatening position, one that no woman should ever have to deal with.