For 15-year-old Ariella Marsden, a £2,000 windfall earlier this month was a great result — but not because of the money.The teenager, who lives in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, was awarded the money as compensation after a bus driver demanded that she and two friends move seats to make way for Charedi men.
Since last September, when the incident happened, Beit Shemesh has been at the centre of clashes between Israel’s strictly Orthodox and the mainstream religious and secular communities over the exclusion of women from public spaces. In December, the eyes of the world turned toward Beit Shemesh, when eight-year-old Na’ama Margolis was spat at on her way to school for allegedly dressing immodestly.
But despite the city’s growing reputation as a place hostile to equality, and despite growing up alongside the Charedi community, Ariella had never experienced such discrimination herself. Until, that is, a week before Rosh Hashanah, when she and her friends boarded the bus home from school.
They spotted three empty seats at the front. “We wanted to sit together so we decided to take them,” she said. “Then two Charedi men got on and they just stood next to us even though there was room on the other side of the aisle. After a while the driver turned round to us and told us to move to the back.
“I’m religious and at school we have to wear dresses that cover our knees and reach our elbows, so we weren’t provocative. We were just sitting there.”
But, as young girls facing a command from a grown man, they caved in. There was no room at the back, so they stood for half an hour as the bus wove around windy roads and roundabouts.
Ariella’s mother Dawn, who moved to Israel from Hendon more than 20 years ago, was furious. On advice, they chose to file a lawsuit, and Ariella testified in court earlier this month. Such discrimination is illegal in Israel and the driver for the bus company, Superbus, was found to be at fault
“I was scared to testify,” admitted Ariella, who endured a similar incident soon after the first, when a Charedi man demanded that she move. This time, she refused. “It doesn’t really happen that people sue about this. Most of the women on the bus are Charedi so they move to the back automatically. There’s a ticket machine at the back so they can get on and pay at the back.”
Her mother, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for 18 years, emphasises that the problem is not with the majority of Charedim and that most of the time, the city is a comfortable place for women. She has high praise, for example, for the largely Charedi staff at the school attended by Na’ama Margolis, at which Ariella’s sister was also a pupil. “We never had these problems until six or seven years ago when an extremist group moved in,” said Mrs Marsden.
In her view, the government has let the situation rot for too long. “For many years the extremist Charedi population has worked this country on a basis of intimidation,” she said. “The time has come to say we’re not going to put up with this.
“This case was really not an anti-Charedi act, it was with the intention that my daughter and everybody else’s daughter in Beit Shemesh should be able to board any city bus and ride home without being harassed.”
She is full of pride in her daughter. “It’s not every 15-year-old who would be willing to stand up in court. It was a very difficult thing for her and she still went ahead.”
Winning the court case has certainly built Ariella’s confidence. “I’m happy now to sit on the bus where I want, and I’m telling my friends not to worry,” she said. She is aware that she can’t fight every case, and is reluctant to become the poster-child for the battle against Charedi extremism. “But I’m willing to make a stand. It angers me because I pay the fare. Everyone should be allowed to be on the part of the bus that they want.”