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.