The High Court of Justice will hear a petition Monday against sex-segregated public buses known as mehadrin lines, which are meant to serve the ultra-Orthodox community.
Orthodox American-Israeli novelist Naomi Ragen and the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of Israel's Reform movement, brought the petition a year ago in a bid to sharply reduce the operation of sex-segregated buses and prevent men and women from being forced to sit separately.
The state argues that the segregation — with men sitting in front and women in back — is voluntary and that the companies operating the mehadrin lines "are prohibited from forcing the voluntary arrangement on the rest of the passengers who are not interested in it...." ...
In practice, however, passengers have complained that they feel coerced — sometimes by physical violence — into sitting in the designated section of the bus.
Ragen decided to file suit after unintentionally boarding a mehadrin line, Egged's No. 40 bus, toward her home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot in July 2004. "I found myself insulted, humiliated and physically threatened because I refused to be bullied into giving up my seat and moving to the back of the bus," Ragen wrote.
In addition, Miriam Shear, an Israeli-American woman on vacation from Canada, says she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of ultra-Orthodox men in November 2006 when she refused to move to the back of Egged bus No. 2 on its way to the Western Wall....
I don't see anything the government can reasonably do about genuinely voluntary segregation, which is not enforced through the threat of violence. But if it is indeed not adequately dealing with the violence, that's pretty bad.
The more interesting question, though, is whether and when governments in liberal democracies should, if legislators so decide, be allowed to legally enforce sex segregation (something the Israeli government claims isn't happening).
I think the answer is "sometimes." I've argued, for instance, that girls-only sports teams should be allowed in government-run schools; I'm inclined to say that sex-segregated government-run schools should also be allowed, if there seems to be good data supporting their educational value at least to one sex (and especially both).
It's true that such "separate but equal" wouldn't and shouldn't be allowed for race classifications, but sex should not necessarily always be treated like race. For instance, I think it's legitimate for the government to accommodate people's desire to be shielded when undressed (or even when partly dressed) from the opposite sex, but not legitimate for the government to accommodate (even on its own property) people's desire to be shielded from other races. Such sex-based privacy rules are much less likely than race-based privacy rules to be motivated by group hatred or perception of group inferiority, and much less likely to be divisive along group lines.
At the same time, I'm inclined to say that such government-imposed sex segregation should generally only be allowed when there's a pretty serious benefit to doing so, beyond the religious, cultural, or personal preferences of some citizens (though I should acknowledge that privacy interests are not easy to disentangle from such preferences). So I'd say that governments ought not impose segregation on publicly-run bus lines or other public places (outside restrooms and the like). But I'd like to hear what others think.
I'd also guess that either voluntary or mandatory segregation would be more appealing to many if half the buses had the women at the back and half at the front, rather than always having the women in the back.
Finally, a few remarks I've seen online about this try to analogize this to the treatment of women in Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia. That seems like quite a stretch, even if the government were seen as being a participant in the bus segregation. First, the treatment of women by the government in those countries is very far from "separate but equal."
Second, while I do think sex segregation may tend to reinforce traditional sex norms, norms that have generally on balance substantially restricted women, the harmfulness of this tendency is related to how much women are indeed restricted in that particular country. It may well be wrong to have sex segregation even in a country that gives women many educational, professional, and public options (as Israel does), especially when the sex segregation takes place in a particular subculture in which women may still be held back. But it's much more harmful, I think, in a country that gives women many fewer options, and where the dominant culture and not just a relatively small subculture continues to repress women.