A Bus Ride With the ultra-Orthodox Can Give Israeli Women PTSD

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Bus number 402 travelling between Jerusalem and the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak.
Bus number 402 travelling between Jerusalem and the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak.Credit: Moti Milrod

Gender separation on the No. 402 Egged bus near Tel Aviv has gone up a notch. Nur Bar-On told Haaretz’s Or Kashti last week that the driver allowed 12 men to board and left the women on the platform. I read the article, and as with post-traumatic stress disorder, the terrible memory of my last trip on that bus came back to me.

A few years ago my daughter and I were waiting near Bnei Brak for the No. 402 bus. My daughter used the opportunity for a short anthropology lesson: “Mom, is that a Hasid or a Lithuanian Hasid? And that woman there, why is she wearing both a wig and a head scarf?”

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It was a good mother-daughter experience, a researcher of the ultra-Orthodox community and a child with insatiable curiosity. By the time the bus had arrived she could identify all the subgroups waiting in line. And then the bus came and nothing prepared us for the horrific experience we underwent together.

>> Read more: Israel’s creeping gender segregation | Editorial

The bus was very crowded, so we sat down in the middle – somewhere in the back part of the front. I had told her that I was torn between my desire to respect masculine values in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, and my basic feminism that doesn’t let me sit in the back.

We sat right next to the sticker that declares that every passenger can choose where to sit. On the bench next to us on the other side of the aisle sat an elderly Haredi couple. The bus started to move, and we continued with our conversation.

Then it happened.

The Haredi man across the aisle bent slightly in our direction and mumbled something I didn’t understand. I assumed that he was commenting on the fact that we were sitting in the front part of the bus, and I pointed to the sticker. Then he spoke louder and pointed to the child: “She has to fix her skirt! She has to fix it! That’s not how you sit in a bus!”

I tried to understand what he wanted, and then I realized that my daughter’s skirt, which covered her legs well while she was standing, couldn’t cover her knees while she was sitting down.

We both froze.

I recovered a bit, but then I did the worst thing possible – I signaled my daughter to fix her skirt. That same familiar motion since the days of kindergarten, school and religious girls’ high school. That hand motion that accompanies religious girls and women from cradle to  grave. That motion that says “you’re not modest enough, cover yourself! You’re offending other people. It’s your responsibility that no man sees your body.” She pulled down the skirt. We were both embarrassed, but we continued to talk.

Only when we got home did I begin to digest what had happened. A strange man had spoken to my child, a minor, and referred to her limbs in an offensive way. And I, her mother, instead of defending her and shouting at him, motioned her to cover up. There’s a name for what they did to her — it’s called sexual harassment. And there’s a name for my reaction — it’s called freezing up and collaborating, and then letting my brain freeze again until I woke up.

I apologized to my daughter for not defending her. I tried to explain that we were “guests” in a Haredi bus, and at such a sensitive moment my education to respect this community simply overcame all my feminist views. Basically, my own education also surfaced — only in recent years have I realized that it’s a way of thinking, not a proven fact, that a woman in the public space is responsible for what men around her think.

But the truth is, as in many stories of sexual assault, I simply froze, because I didn’t believe it could happen. I didn’t defend what is most precious to me.

I apologize, my child, for not defending you. From now on I will do everything possible so  you can be present in the public space, board a bus and sit anywhere you like. In this way, we’ll both understand that our body is ours, not an environmental blight from which society must be protected.

Dr. Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar is a lecturer at the School of Communications at Sapir Academic College and a guest researcher at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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