Freedom: the right to be unfair

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 28, 2011

A British newspaper recently ran a story focussed on the decision of the transport authorities in a certain capital city to introduce women-only buses. To which capital city did this story refer? At the end of this column I'm going to give you the answer, but I can tell you now that it's not Jerusalem, where there is indeed de facto gender separation on some bus routes and, as the JC reminded readers last week, even on some streets, at least at certain times of the year such as the recent Succot festival. Nor is it New York, where gender-segregation on a privately-operated but public-use bus service in Brooklyn is causing a predictable commotion (and, anyway, New York is not a capital city).

The transport authorities of the capital city to which I refer decided to introduce women-only buses in response to a campaign aimed at reducing instances of harassment of women on its public transport facilities.

The Guardian, two weeks ago, explained that the initiative had come about after a member of the national legislature launched a petition drawing attention to the fact that hundreds of women and girls are sexually harassed on the country's buses every year. Judging by the public reaction to this initiative, it's been an unqualified success.

The transfer of female soldiers is for their own good

I read this story alongside another, reported in The Times the following day, relating to the public tongue-lashing dished out against London's Garrick Club by Lady Justice Hale, the lone female member of our Supreme Court. The Garrick, a private members' club, was founded in 1831 as an exclusive meeting and eating place for "men of refinement and education".

The operative word here is "men", for the Garrick does not admit women as members. Lady Hale owned up to being shocked that so many of her judicial colleagues are apparently Garrick members, a state of affairs which she blames for the scarcity of female lawyers within the top ranks of our judiciary. But although I cannot claim to have followed every utterance of Her Ladyship upon this matter, I have searched in vain for any similar stricture aimed at - say - the University Women's Club (founded in 1887), whose portals I did once enter as a guest but membership of which is barred to men.

Neither have I noticed any feminist revolt against the policy of women-only buses in the capital city aforementioned. Nor, come to that, has Baroness Hale (or Joanna Lumley, who appears also to have declared war on the Garrick) featured in any campaign against women-only minicabs or driving instructors.

Some months ago the anti-religious press got its journalistic knickers in a twist over the decision of the Israel Defence Forces to transfer four female soldiers out of an artillery corps battalion, in anticipation of the forthcoming deployment to that battalion of a group of what were described as "ultra-orthodox" recruits. There was - naturally - uproar in the Knesset and the four female soldiers reportedly wrote a letter of protest to their battalion commander.

Israel's charedim have long been criticised for turning their backs on the IDF, and for thus not pulling their weight in defence of the Jewish state. Earlier this year a group of charedi rabbis toured the bases of the artillery corps and agreed that charedi yeshiva students could join, provided the female soldiers were moved elsewhere. This welcome initiative has been condemned as discriminatory. So it is. But that does not mean that it is wrong.

I'm sure that the 60 or so charedi youths who will shortly join the artillery corps are upright yidden, filled with Yirat Shamayim (the fear of Heaven). It is, however, well known that charedi men are notorious harassers of the opposite sex. In Israel and in theUnited States there have been numerous instances of inappropriate conduct by charedi men towards women in a variety of public settings, including buses, shops and even on aircraft. Prevention is almost always better than cure, and I suspect that the transfer of female soldiers out of the artillery battalion is for their own good.

Of course it is discriminatory. But in a civilised and free society discrimination has its place. The idea that the Garrick's discrimination is a cause of the paucity of female judges strikes me as absurd. The University Women's Club is fully entitled to discriminate against men. The Garrick is fully entitled to discriminate against women. And the city authorities who have introduced women-only buses are to be congratulated on this very sensible, albeit discriminatory, policy.

The city, by the way, is Guatemala.

Last updated: 1:45pm, October 28 2011