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The High Court of Justice ruled yesterday that gender segregation on buses is illegal, but allowed the practice if the passengers agree to it.

The ruling came after a 2007 petition by a group of women and the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center against dozens of bus lines serving the ultra-Orthodox community. On these routes, women were required to use the back door and sit in the back of the bus, while men entered through the front door and sat in the front.

The petition, filed after several women complained of being verbally and physically assaulted for refusing to sit in the back of the bus, deemed the segregated lines illegal.
It said the lines infringed on the rights of equality, freedom of religion and conscience, and the constitutional right to dignity.

“A public transportation operator, like anyone else, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote. “They must sit wherever they like.”

In the ruling, Rubinstein asked if “the days of Rosa Parks” had returned, referring to the African American woman who fought racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955.

The court adopted the conclusions of a Transportation Ministry committee, which decided late last year that the sex segregation was illegal. But the court, like the committee, agreed to such a practice if it was voluntary and women were not forced to sit in the back of the bus.

Such segregation would be allowed if there was no coercion or physical or verbal violence against those opposing it, the court said.

The committee recommended requiring public transportation companies not to discriminate between passengers in any way and to do everything possible to prevent coercion or violence. The Transportation Ministry would monitor and supervise bus drivers to prevent coercion and violence, the committee said.

Rubinstein said this was not a question of a liberal multicultural attitude toward a “non-liberal” group with discriminating practices, but rather the imposing of a cultural practice on groups and individuals who were not interested in it.

Orly Erez-Likhovski, who represents several women who were party to the petition, welcomed Rubinstein’s statement.

“We commend the High Court verdict stipulating unequivocally that gender segregation is illegal and ordering a clarification of this point on notices in buses and newspapers,” she said. “Public transportation operators must ensure that women’s rights on buses are preserved.” She said the center would operate a hotline for people complaining of discrimination.

Jerusalem council member Rachel Azaria, one of the leaders of the campaign against the segregated lines, lauded “the court’s upholding of the values of equality and the banning of gender discrimination.”

She said she would ensure that the ruling was enforced “and women are treated with dignity in any public area.”