Israel: Modesty buses and Orthodox Jewish power
The other day I was waiting for a bus in downtown Jerusalem. I was in the bustling orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Sharim and the bus stop was extremely crowded.
When the Number 40 bus arrived, the most curious thing happened. Husbands left heavily pregnant wives or spouses struggling with prams and pushchairs to fend for themselves as they and all other male passengers got on at the front of the bus.
Women moved towards the rear door to get on at the back.
When on the bus, I tried to buck the system, moving my way towards the driver but was pushed back towards the other women.
These are what orthodox Jews call "modesty buses".
The separation system operates on 30 public bus routes across Israel.
The authorities here say the arrangement is voluntary, but in practice, as I found out, there is not much choice involved.
Naomi Regen is one of a group of women now taking the separation bus system to court. She is an orthodox Jew herself.
"I wasn't trying to start a revolution, all I wanted to do was get home," she tells me.
"I was in downtown Jerusalem and I saw a bus going straight to my neighbourhood and I got on and sat down, in a single seat behind the driver.
"It was a completely empty bus, and all of a sudden, some men started getting on, ultra-orthodox men. They told me I was not allowed to sit there, I had to go to the back of the bus."
Not only is the segregation system discriminatory, says Ms Regen, but it can also be dangerous, she says, for those like her who ignore it.
"I said to him look, if you bring me a code of Jewish law and show me where it's written that I have to sit at the back of the bus I'll move.
"And he tried to gain support from the rest of the passengers and I underwent a half-hour of pure hell - abuse, humiliation, threats, even physical intimidation."
Supporters of the separation system say the buses involved serve mainly religious Jewish neighbourhoods - but not exclusively.
Many passengers are not happy. You will hear complaints at bus stops all over town.
One man told me that if some people wanted segregation buses they should pay a private company to provide them.
Another told me that in a society that is democratic and where the buses are subsidised by the government, a minority's concerns should not override those of the majority.
But Shlomo Rosenstein disagrees. He is a city councillor in Jerusalem where a large proportion of Israel's segregation lines operate.
"This really is about positive discrimination, in women's favour. Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, this modesty barrier must not be broken."
Opponents of the separation buses face an uphill struggle. Orthodox Jewish leaders are a powerful minority in Israel.
Naomi Regen says the buses are just part of a wider menacing pattern of behaviour towards women in parts of the orthodox Jewish community.
"They've already cancelled higher education in the ultra-orthodox world for women. They have packed the religious courts with ultra-orthodox judges.
"In some places there are separate sides of the street women have to walk on."
She says that there are signs all over some religious neighbourhoods demanding that women dress modestly.
"They throw paint and bleach at women who aren't dressed modestly and if we don't draw a line in the sand here with this seat on a bus, then I don't know what this country and this religion is going to look like in 20 years," Ms Regen said.
Petitioners like Naomi Regen have asked Israel's High Court to either ban the segregation buses altogether or to force bus companies to provide parallel bus routes for passengers wanting to sit where they like.
This should be ceased, immediately