In late 2011, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man asked an Israeli female soldier to move to the back of the bus, citing his religious belief in gender segregation. She decided to stay in her seat out of a commitment to civil rights for women.
Society often pressures us to comply with cultural or religious requests as a sign of “respect,” but moral courage asks us to re-examine what respect means. The morally courageous person will think critically about whose rights will be violated in the name of “respect.”
The female soldier, Doron Matalon, was harassed when she denied the man’s request. He reportedly called her a “whore.” Other ultra-Orthodox men on the bus joined him, shouting “prostitute” and “Shikse” (a pejorative term for a non-Jewish woman). Matalon stated, “[I] felt threatened and a huge commotion began. I yelled out for the conductor to come quick, and two male conductors rushed in. They pushed him away from me…but he continued to be abusive.”
When recounting the incident, Matalon notes that she has been asked to move to the back of the bus several times. In fact, this is not an uncommon request of women in Israel, especially in areas heavily populated by religious groups. Women’s rights organizations have repeatedly complained about certain bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox areas that enforce gender segregation. While women have the right to refuse to move under Israeli law, they may face physical and verbal abuse in an attempt to intimidate them to move, as was the case with Matalon.
Leaders in Israel are slowly beginning to grapple with gender segregation. The judge for this case released a statement which read in part, “In light of this growing phenomenon of women’s exclusion …, I believe a dangerous cause exists here, because the aggravation of such a phenomenon endangers a democratic society when done forcibly.” For the sake of democracy, more Israeli citizens will need to exhibit Matalon’s moral courage – and sit down as a way of standing up for women’s equality.