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Women in the back, controversy up front in NY bus

The B110 bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, is different from other New York City buses. Most notably, women are asked to ride in the back.
/ Source: The New York Times

It does not take long to recognize that the B110 bus in Brooklyn is not like others in the city.

The exterior colors are different: red, white and blue. The price for a single ride is the same, $2.50, but MetroCards are not accepted. The bus does not run Friday night or most of Saturday.

But the most obvious sign that the B110 is different was demonstrated Wednesday by Gitty Green, a 30-year-old mother who boarded the bus on Wednesday with her three children and a stroller and headed straight to the back.

As her two older sons perched on the seats behind her, she looked ahead at the men seated in front, mostly Hasidic Jews in wide-brimmed hats, and said, because her religion dictates the separation of the sexes, she never wondered what it would be like to sit with them.

“It’s such a normal thing for us that women and men are separate,” she said. “Most of the ladies go to the back.”

The B110 bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, has been run by Private Transportation Corporation since 1973, under a franchise with the city. And to many in the area, the bus’s tradition of separation comes with little surprise or indignation.

But this week, the bus’s practices gained widespread publicity after The New York World, a Columbia Journalism School publication, reported that a female rider was told by other riders that she had to leave the front. The story was quickly picked up by bloggers and even came to the attention of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, the mayor said that segregating men and women was “obviously not permitted” on public buses. “Private people: you can have a private bus,” he added. “Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it.”

Discriminatory practices?
Even though a private operator runs the bus, it was awarded the route through a public and competitive bidding process. Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the bus was supposed to be “available for public use” and could not discriminate.

Anne Koenig, head of the department’s franchise division, sent a letter on Wednesday to Jacob Marmurstein, the bus company’s president, asking him to provide any complaints filed about its practices and to show what the company was doing to prevent discriminatory practices. Ms. Koenig gave the company one week to respond. Mr. Marmurstein could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday afternoon, the custom of women’s sitting at the back of the bus was evident, both in practice and in writing.

Guidelines, posted in the front and the back, said that “when boarding a crowded bus with standing passengers in the front, women should board the back door after paying the driver in the front” and that “when the bus is crowded, passengers should stand in their designated areas.”

The women riding in the back included several full-time mothers and an accountant who commutes into Manhattan each day. One woman who would identify herself only by her initials, M. M., said other buses that cater to the Hasidic community sometimes separate men and women by having one sex sit on the left and the other on the right. She said women could not sit in the front and men sit in the back because “they’re not allowed to see the women.” But she acknowledged that the B110 bus was not just for members of the Hasidic community and other Orthodox Jews.

“Everyone takes the bus; it’s not a strict thing,” she said. “Usually it’s full of people from the community. But it’s not always.”

Women in back, men in front
A male photographer found it difficult to visit the back of the bus, filled with Hasidic riders loaded down with packages and the scent of freshly baked bread before the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret. The bus driver told him that only women were allowed there.

While no male passengers sitting at the front of the bus explicitly told a female reporter to move, several riders said women did not belong there. One father who sat in the front with his son and daughter and declined to give his name said men and women “need to be separated.” He looked down at his daughter dressed in a bright red raincoat, with her blue eyes frozen in amazement, and said: “She’s small. When she’s big, she will sit in the back.”

Even if the buses allow women to sit in the front, it may take longer for male riders to feel comfortable. As Asaf Amitay, a 35-year-old regular rider on the bus, rode home to Borough Park, he made it clear that he did not believe that women should be seated in the front.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “The women is in the back. The men are in the front.”

This article, "At Front of Brooklyn Bus, a Clash of Religious and Women’s Rights," first appeared in The New York Times.