Ultra-Orthodox Misogyny, Redux

When you read the post last week that dealt with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near Jerusalem throwing rocks and feces at little girls on their way to school you may have thought, “Well, thank goodness we don’t have nutters like that here.” If you live anywhere near Brooklyn, though, you’d be wrong.

Around the same time that that story broke, we heard some disturbing news out of Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhoods – signs posted in Yiddish that read, “Precious Jewish daughters, please move over to the side when you see a man come across.” If that wasn’t bad enough, today we heard that the buses that serve those neighborhoods have been forcing women to sit in the back of the bus. It’s not sexist, it’s culture! Shitty, sexist culture.

First, about the signs: they’ve since been removed, not for being sexist trash but for being illegally posted to trees. This is an actual explanation that was offered by an actual Hasidic man:

“It is very respectful; it’s not ordering you to cross the street — it means, ‘Let him pass head on,’ ” said one Hasidic man who declined to give his name. “There are a lot of people on the street during the holidays, and this is a reminder to let men pass so they don’t go barging into a group of women.”

It’s weird that the signs weren’t addressed to men, isn’t it? Allow me to make the obvious point here:

“It is very respectful; it’s not ordering black people to cross the street — it means, ‘Let white people pass head on,’ ” said one Hasidic man who declined to give his name. “There are a lot of people on the street during the holidays, and this is a reminder to let white people pass so they don’t go barging into a group of black people.”

The signs seemed to emulate these signs posted back in the summer by a self-professed Jewish modesty group, demanding that women not wear tank tops, t-shirts, and clingy dresses in the 90-degree heat.

Now about the buses: they’re privately run buses but they have blue signs and route numbers like any other city bus, and they are open to the public, a phrase that in the United States means they are legally required to not discriminate against anyone due to their gender, race, or religion. When the New York World sent a woman to ride the route, she made it a few stops before men on the bus plainly told her to move to the back with the other women. The bus driver did nothing. When she asked why she had to move, a man told her, “If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’”

He might not, but the rest of us have every right to ask that. The Human Rights Commission told The New York World that they wouldn’t investigate this violation unless and until someone filed a formal complaint, which brings up the argument: if the rules are only aimed at ultra-Orthodox women, and none of them complain, why should we get upset?

I’ve seen that same argument used in discussions of Muslim and Fundamentalist Mormon women living in very strict, conservative enclaves with little to no interaction with anyone outside the community. “If they choose to abide by that religion, who are we to tell them they shouldn’t?”

This argument is reliant upon the idea that religion is something that each of us, as adults, calmly and rationally chooses from a menu. For this argument to work, it would have to mean that I, as a non-believing atheist agnostic, could tomorrow decide that I prefer to believe in Zeus and so would begin following all His commandments. The argument requires that you forget about the fact that children in these communities are raised to believe exactly what the adults say. You must forget that they are taught that “If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’. You must forget about the little girls who walk down those streets and sit on those buses and learn every day that they are second-class citizens and will be until the day they die.

The argument also ignores the fact that these communities aren’t simply a gathering of people who believe in one thing – they are communities with deep cultural and familial ties. If a woman decides one day that counter to what she has been taught since birth, she is a complete human being with agency who deserves every opportunity offered to a man, she cannot simply leave. She cannot just hop a different bus, one where she can sit anywhere she wants, and head over to Bushwick, rent an apartment, get a job, and begin a new life as an equal to those around her. To do that, she would need to have somehow made connections outside her community. She would need to have a support network. She would need to know how to get a job. Depending upon what religious community she grew up in, she may very well have to give up her family and resolve to never see them again.

Could you do it? I couldn’t.

I was raised Christian, but I was also raised to know that as a woman I could accomplish anything a man could, and I knew I would always be accepted by my family, regardless of what I believe.

Who knows where I would be today if I was raised to think God had decreed I was less than men. Where would I be if I was intimidated every day by Modesty Police who determined that I should wear uncomfortable clothing, sit in the back of a bus, and shyly move to the side when a man comes my way?

I tell you one thing – I probably wouldn’t be here, flipping the bird to ultra-Orthodox assholes.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. These groups have also successfully had bike lanes removed from their streets because bike lanes encourage women in immodest dress to use them. Grrr.

  2. ‘“There are a lot of people on the street during the holidays, and this is a reminder to let white people pass so they don’t go barging into a group of black people.”’ — some members of that community might not disagree too much with that sign either *sigh*.

  3. This is an issue that’s endemic in the world.

    When working for doctors without borders we regularly went to villages where women did most of the work (even when sick) while the men often spent most time sitting around, but got all of the authority. In fact I’d say this was most places we worked.

    Unfortunately, it seems it will be many generations into the future before women in cultures such as the one you describe get any kind of parity.

  4. One of my friends can’t understand why I’m upset about this…it’s a religious thing! And hey, we don’t make waves about women being told to sit/stand at the back of their mosques here in the US, right?

    I don’t understand how people can refuse to see that religious misogyny is behind the various anti-women laws rolling out of countries around the world. If you object to misogynistic laws, you should object to religion’s misogynistic rules that degrade and oppress women. That is just…logical.

    *screams mindlessly into the Void*

  5. This kind of shit should simply be illegal AND that law enforced. Religious beliefs do not have priority over misogyny, racism or homophobia or any other form of discrimination.

  6. Well … at least no single religion can call dibs on empty-headedness. I hadn’t heard about the back-of-the-bus commandment before–what’s that, #11??

  7. Seriously? Sending people to the back of the bus? Didn’t we do this one already? Does this not ring any bells with those people?

    1. I remember seeing this on NY1 a week or so ago. I did a double take because I almost could believe it.
      Matt, we should do some sort of amazing art project that plays off of the wording of the statement. “Precious frontierswoman, please die in childbirth on the opposite side of the street so that the bear-men may pass unscathed.” Or something equally hilarious.
      And now I kinda want to try and ride the B110 with my wife and see what happens. That neighborhood is very close to where we live.

  8. These religious, cultural, god fearing ass wipes need to be ridiculed, condemned, ignored, made fun of, flipped off, debated, minimized, and accorded no respect for their Iron age beliefs and attitudes.

  9. Although, to be fair, people DO break ties with their families and communities in order to exercise religious freedom, or other kinds of social freedom.

    Last night I had a long conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness apostate who described how she had to completely cut ties with her entire family and almost everyone she had ever known in order to break free of that lifestyle. She said that for a long time, that was a very strong force holding her back from moving forward with her break from her religion. The church made a deliberate effort to make the cost of leaving as high as possible.

    It’s an excellent point to make… people need to be willing to make ENORMOUS sacrifices in order to leave behind strict religious communities, and it requires a huge amount of critical thought, confidence, and self-honesty in order to go against everything you’ve ever been taught, and it’s a whole lot more than we can really reasonably expect from people. But still… it does happen. Not just in regards to religion, but the many, many sacrifices a person may have to make for their own beliefs or freedom. Far, far, far too many of my friends are alienated from their families and had to make that sacrifice in order to be true to themselves. It sucks, but it’s a part of life that many have to endure.

    So while it’s definitely a hugely important consideration when people make arguments that people who are second-class citizens within certain religions are simply exercising their right to religious practice, it’s not an issue where we can say they just had no choice whatsoever. It’s an awful choice to make, but it is a choice, and people do make it.

    1. Yeah, in rich nations like ours, they sure can make that choice. I wonder what the best way to reach out and let them know this choice is out there is.

      However in countries unlike ours, ones where unlimited food, water, medicine, and energy is not available, it can be a VERY different situation. I’ve seen before, sometimes women can’t leave because they’d face starvation, capture by paramilitary or bandits, or sexual violence for the local community.

      And it’s hard to help them because this opens you up to violence as well…

      1. That’s a very good point. I guess I was just thinking in the context of industrialized, democratic nations. In some nations, not only do poverty and the risk of violence keep people tethered to their communities, families and religion, but also it can actually be illegal to not act in accordance with the national religion, or even if not illegal, will make you into a UNIVERSAL pariah, unable to be accepted by any new community or build a new support system.

        And I suppose there’s lots of variables that matter even in “developed” countries like the States, Canada, the UK, etc. Someone with financial resources or a good job is going to have a much easier time breaking with their family and community, but someone without those things may be dependent on their families and religious community. And a lot of it can be effected by your relative privilege in society as a whole. Money, career, race, gender, disability, mental health… all of that can have a huge effect on how easy or difficult it is to break with your past and your support network.

        I mean, it’s a VERY good issue to bring up, how many social factors keep people tethered to religions, communities, belief systems, families, etc. that don’t respect their human rights or identities, and that it isn’t a simple case of people freely consenting to it, but… people do escape, and do overcome those boundaries.

        I think the fact that people speak of the difficulty of telling their families that they’re atheist in terms of “coming out” can actually be pretty useful, in terms of recognizing how much the enforcement of certain social and cultural rules, roles and systems is done through the family. For many people with strict religious backgrounds, it really isn’t much unlike “coming out” as gay, lesbian, trans, bi, etc. It’s a similar sort of sacrifice, and a similar system of enforcing certain cultural expectations.

  10. It ought to be noted how difficult it is to find a support network if the community you’re in discourages mingling with people outside the community. This is on top of just how difficult it is to find a support network generally. The deck is very much stacked against you leaving communities like this, and it’s designed that way on purpose.

    I’m not intertwined in a religious community, but I am facing the possibility of getting disowned by my family when I do come out as an atheist, and even just that on it’s own is very daunting.

  11. Very well said Rebecca! I am curious what the reaction would be if a man from outside that community sat in the back with his wife or girlfriend? It makes me wonder if they’d bully another man like they did the woman who tried to sit in the front. I’m guessing yes… no real point here, just thinking the whole awful story through.

    1. How about a couple getting on at different stops, striking up a conversation, then start making out?

  12. Outraged! I have forwarded this and other articles to every woman and feminist male in my address book. I have also asked my female friends living in NY to take this bus line with a camera and sit in front.

    Pleased to see there is an investigation.

    Not surprised that the segregation is justified through religion, injustices often are.

  13. For an interesting look at the Brooklyn Hassidic culture and the role of men and women within it, I recommend the 2003 documentary Divan by independent filmmaker Pearl Gluck. Pearl was raised in that culture and chose to leave it, but she still tries to maintain connections to her family and roots. The film made me realize how similar Hassidim and “quiverfull”-minded Christians are with respect to their expectations of women.

  14. First Rebecca, I have much respect for you and the work you do, but I have to say, I’m not thoroughly impressed with this article. For the record think the behavior of the individuals outlined here are disgusting and reprehensible. As one of the few open Jews that is a regular commenter here, I will probably get flamed for this but…

    You say “about the signs: they’ve since been removed, not for being sexist trash but for being illegally posted to trees.” Why else would they be taken down? Is it your suggestion that lawfully things should be removed simply because you find them sexist? By that logic we should censor anyone and thing we find personally offensive. While I’m all for using public persuasion to get corporate and public responsibility/change, I don’t want to hamper individual freedom of expression. Again, I think the signs are disgusting, but I don’t see anything wrong with the fact that they were removed for being posted in an illegal fashion.

    Regarding the bus. I’m not convinced there was discrimination. Again I think it is disgusting, but what the individual passenger(s) did, unless they were employees of the bus company, this is not discrimination by the bus company. It is abusive and disgusting, but it was not an action of discrimination by the company. As for the bus driver not saying anything, I don’t know, maybe it’s the company creating a culture where the drivers are to allow it. I can’t say. But I’ve certainly seen lots of bus drivers ignore/ do nothing when bad things happen on buses. Some people are just afraid to get involved.

    The rest of your argument seems to progress into a bit of an anti-religion, people need to be protected from themselves and inability to get past their cultural indoctrination diatribe. I guess I’m curious where you are going with your argument? Is it a call to outlaw religious fundamentalism? I think you bring up some very real problems, and sadly there are parts of the world where it is a much bigger problem. I think we both agree when a people try to dictate to other people outside their culture that they need to conform to them, it is a problem. And I think the individuals who do it, or if it can be shown it is coming from and organization or company, should be called on to the table for their actions. But I think it becomes a different, greyer, much more complicated story, when you try and restrict a culture from settings its own rules and behaviors. There are certainly times when public good and safety take precedence over religious freedoms. Especially when it can be shown to physically harmful to minors. But it is not always so clear cut. At what point does the state or anyone else get to tell a parent how to raise their kids. When is it harmful? How do you define that it? I have parents ask me all the time how I get my kids to eat vegetables? We eat healthy at home. We don’t eat a lot of crap and we don’t take out kids for fast food. I have had parents tell me, all their kids will eat is chicken nuggets. Well until a birthday party this year, my oldest had no idea what a chicken nugget is. He has never been in a fast food restaurant either for that matter. But I’m not going to lobby that McDonalds starts carding kids to make sure they are over 18 before letting them eat crap. Obesity is a real health issue in the US, but where does the state get to step in? I also have a couple friends who think it is OK for their preschool age kids dress up as a zombie for Halloween, going so far as to teach them to say BRAINS. Again, my kids (hopefully) have no idea what a zombie is supposed to be. Same and other parents let their kids watch violent video games and cartoons. I personally think that is harmful. Who gets to be the judge?

    I also don’t think people are as trapped as you portray. If that was really case you wouldn’t have so many splits within religions. Since you are talking about ultra orthodox Judaism, you also have Modern Orthodox, Conservative, reformed… And plenty of people that leave all together. Lots and lots of people grow up and leave Judaism and other religions, or seek out flavors less stringent. And there are people like me who go the opposite direction. I grew up with very little Judaism, and now I belong to a Modern Orthodox Shul.

    1. “Why else would they be taken down?”

      Because they’re sexist. That an organization would censor something because it was ‘illegal’ as opposed to because it was racist/homphobic/whatever gives the very clear signal the organization doesn’t consider that kind of bigotry worth getting bothered over.

      “By that logic we should censor anyone and thing we find personally offensive.”

      If by ‘that’ you mean things we find reinforce an atmosphere that encourages and ondones bigotry against members of soceity, sure.

      And yes we (not necesarily the government) should censor some things. For example, someone who shows up to a wake to laugh loudly at how awesome it is that d-bag has croaked while that d-bag’s children are busy weaping over the d-bag’s body.

      “While I’m all for using public persuasion to get corporate and public responsibility/change, I don’t want to hamper individual freedom of expression.”

      That would be using public persuasion to hamper someone’s freedom of expression.

      “I’m not convinced there was discrimination. ”

      You mean there was no discrimination by the company. You happily recognize that the actual passengers were discriminating against the woman. I don’t know very much about law so I won’t comment on how responsible the company is in this situation but I’m not about to assume the best of them. If this has been going on for a while and the bus drivers have been ok with it, it speaks volumes about this organization.

      “I also don’t think people are as trapped as you portray. If that was really case you wouldn’t have so many splits within religions. ”

      Not seeing where it was stated that people don’t leave there religions. And not seeing how what you’ve listed contradicts the piece’s point that religion (especially of the fundamentalist) variety instill all sorts of biases in people about themselves and the world and that it can take a life time to break from it.

  15. “This argument is reliant upon the idea that religion is something that each of us, as adults, calmly and rationally chooses from a menu.”

    Yeah, unfortunately religious indocrination starts immediately after birth. It’s not something we get to choose. As my philosophy professor in college so eloquently put it, “We suck it out of our mother’s tits.” We are so immersed in religion from such an early age that it’s impossible not to have our belief systems shaped by it.

    It would be nice if we could shield children from religious indocrination until adulthood and then allow them to choose from the ‘menu’ if they so desire. My bet is an informed adult mind, unhampered by years of submersion in religious dogma and imagry, would rarely choose any religion at all.

    Then there would be fewer assholes in the world.

  16. “Because they’re sexist. That an organization would censor something because it was ‘illegal’ as opposed to because it was racist/homphobic/whatever gives the very clear signal the organization doesn’t consider that kind of bigotry worth getting bothered over.” – Or it means that they are protecting individual freedoms and still finding away to remove offensive materials. But since neither of us are in the head of the officials who decided to remove them, I’d prefer to assume good intent.

    Yes I mean discrimiantion by the company, since that is what is protected under the law. Expecting an hourly employee to stand up for a stranger’s civil rights then assigning intent to the company because, is overreaching

    In regards to leaving religion, or at the an stricter for up it, I reasonably go it from where she talked about getting on a bus and cutting off ties with her family. In regards to the rest of it, I was pointing out a very slippery slope in regards to shut how much the state should intervene in patronal choices.

  17. I remember reading in a Model UN info pack that a reason for legally restricting religious practices is to give people choices, without them having to take personal responsibility.

    Yes, people can leave their communities, but I don’t think anyone’s arguing that peer pressure isn’t a problem. A legislation could help if, for example, a person experiences a lot of family pressure to circumcise their child – “Sorry, mom, dad, aunts and uncles. I know how important this is and I’m as unhappy as you are, but we can’t afford to get in trouble with the law.” The women in this community just need some laws on their side, even if they aren’t enforced, so they can stand up for themselves but blame the state.

    Sorry this post is quite hypothetical, but I can’t seem to find a good link on it right now.

  18. Just my ramblings. My apologies if they’re not well thought out. It is, after all, my only day off this week.

    I find it very difficult to approach such delicate subject matter (religion and its often inappropriate traditions) because of the solid societal belief that religion is innately righteous. The fact of the matter is, however, religion has a place in society, culture, and the individual, but is also often responsible for wars, inappropriate decisions in lawmaking, and deaths. We see this in the fight over the holy land, state laws that forbid certain types of marriage, and executions made in the name of god. So how do we separate our personal relationship with God, Allah, Buddha, etc. from mainstream religion?

    Collectivist communities, cities, states, etc. are often deeply ingrained in religion and vice versa. Many people who come from religious families are socialized to believe what the family believes. Furthermore, this socialization is grounded through guilt, fear, and control. Thus, members feel deep guilt when they attempt to move away from their beliefs. Community, which is a broad way to describe collectivism, is a very powerful form of social control. So it’s not an easy task, simply packing up and moving away from the family, the community, etc.

    Because socialization is a very difficult process to contend with, I find it is quite necessary for the government to sanction particular rules and expectations for communities, even when it interferes with the tradition of that community’s religion. This is kind of a “duh” ideal since we are all well aware of the many religious traditions that have been outlawed such as betrothing a minor to an adult, polygamy, and many more. Drawing a line, however, is a messy task that requires logic, and an unbiased, objective view of the situation. No wonder things like this are still happening in the free world. Our law makers and community advisers are missing some of the skills necessary to make these decisions.

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