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Controversy Erupts Over Sex-Segregated Brooklyn Bus

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It's been a few decades since Americans were engaged in a back-of-the-bus controversy. Now a popular bus route between two New York City neighborhoods is reviving the issue.

Last Wednesday, Melissa Franchy boarded the B110 from Williamsburg to Boro Park, two Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She was accompanying her friend, Sasha Chavkin, a reporter for The New York World, a Columbia Journalism School publication. Their mission: Find out what would happen if Franchy sat at the front of the bus.

At first, nothing happened. Then she was approached by another passenger, a Hasidic Jewish man.

"And he said, 'OK, you should sit at the back because women sit at the back on this bus and men sit in the front.' And I looked at him and said, 'OK, why?' And he said, 'Well, that's the rule because this is a private Jewish bus.' "

Franchy asked the driver if this was permitted. He didn't speak enough English to respond. Then she noticed two Hasidic women at the back of the bus.

"One of them was rolling her eyes; the other one said, 'Just move, I mean, that's the way it is. You don't ask.' And then the man said, 'When the Lord gives a rule, you don't question it.' "

The rule, says Shulem Deen, who spent the first 29 years of his life as a Hasidic Jew, is steeped in ultra-Orthodox tradition.

"Essentially, it's based on the idea that men and women should generally be separate, should inhabit different spheres of life in public in particular," Deen says.

Deen, who is editor of Unpious.com, says Hasidic men and women don't socialize or casually mix in public; many believe it is wrong to look at a woman outside the house. Deen says in recent years, he's noticed an upsurge in gender separation.

"It's become more codified," he says. "Now you have signs on the streets, telling you, 'Women, please step aside from men,' whereas in the past, that never would have been necessary."

But the tradition is running afoul of New York's civil rights laws. True, a private, company, Private Transportation Corp., owns the bus. But the company was awarded the route from the city. Therefore it can't discriminate — a point Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated on Wednesday.

For his part, Deen, is not surprised the B110 is making news.

"I think Americans react very viscerally to hearing about it because of the civil rights movement, because Rosa Parks became such an icon of that particular struggle — of-front-of-the-bus/back-of-the-bus discrimination."

Now the city's Department of Transportation has sent the bus company a letter saying it is violating the law and demanding a response by Wednesday. The company has not responded, nor have Hasidic leaders: The Jewish holiday of Sukkot runs through Saturday evening, and until then, Hasidic believers do not answer the telephone.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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