NY Town Bans Women Drivers
- The status of women in New Skver is an innovation. In 19th century
Eastern Europe, Hassidic women were often deeply involved in earning
an income and were more likely to be multilingual than their husbands.
Hasidic Village Keeps Women Out of the Driver's Seat
By STEVEN I. WEISS
October 14, 2005
Even as the White House presses Saudi Arabia to permit women to drive,
an ultra-Orthodox community in New York has launched a campaign to
reassert its ban on female motorists.
During her trip last month to Saudi Arabia, Undersecretary of State
Karen Hughes delivered a speech in which she stressed the Bush
administration's determination to see Saudi women obtain more rights -
including the right to drive.
Meanwhile, in the Hasidic village of New Square, N.Y., religious
leaders recently issued a document reminding residents that "women
should not sit in the front of a car." Released in July by the
community's top rabbinical court, the document was aimed at shoring up
several communal standards - especially those regarding women's conduct.
"It's considered not tzniusdik [modest] for a woman to be a driver,
not in keeping with the out-of-public-view [attitude]," village
spokesman Rabbi Mayer Schiller said. "If you can imagine in Europe,
would a woman have been a coach driver, a wagon driver? It would've
been completely inappropriate."
The village's religious leaders have made an exemption for an
80-year-old woman who was one of the community's original residents
and hadn't known about the driving prohibition before she moved there.
New Square, a 7,000-person enclave located 40 miles north of New York
City, was founded by the late Skverer rebbe Rabbi Yaakov Yosef
Twersky, a Holocaust survivor, and his followers. The village was
established in 1954 and officially incorporated seven years later. It
relies heavily on private charitable donations and on
In the recent document, New Square religious leaders reiterated the
prohibition against girls riding bicycles; also, women are forbidden
from going outside in their long housecoats - a common fashion staple
in many Orthodox communities.
The rules "are nothing new," Schiller said, but "there's just a sense
that for some of the young people they need to reinforce them." He
added that in the village's entire history, similar comprehensive
lists of communal standards have been posted "maybe five or 10 times,
but probably no more than that."
"If you would poll the community... 97.5% would say, 'Yes, this is
what we want,'" Schiller said.
While the rules are meant to apply to residents, clearly they're not
part of the criteria for endorsing candidates for elective office. New
Square's top rabbis endorsed Hillary Clinton in her successful run for
the senate in 2000, and delivered all but a few votes for the former
first lady. Clinton spokeswoman Nina Blackwell did not return repeated
requests for comment.
The recent document in New Square addressed a wide range of
prohibitions. One rule requires that a fence be constructed around
houses that have a trampoline. Another states that exercise groups can
be formed only with the permission of a rabbinical court and that they
require a mashgiach (religious inspector) to oversee them.
Some of the regulations are targeted at men, including a clause
instructing male worshippers to keep their cell phones off and to
refrain from talking during prayer times. But it is the rules
pertaining to women - in particular, those related to driving - that
bear a striking resemblance to the Saudi practices criticized by the
In some ways, Saudi Arabia's laws regarding women are more permissive
than the religious edicts in New Square. For example, a Saudi woman is
allowed to ride in the front seat of a car if the driver is her
husband. While husbands and wives in Saudi Arabia are allowed to walk
with each other, New Square men and women always must walk on
different sides of the street. In strong contrast to Saudi Arabia, the
government does not enforce the religious rules in New Square;
violations do not result in any form of corporal punishment. But those
who frequently violate the rules in New Square are blackballed from
"I can think of just a handful of cases over the years" in which
someone was expelled from New Square's religious community, Schiller said.
"I don't think any of these transgressions would get you to be
expelled from the community," Schiller said. But, he added, "If a
young woman was driving, that would be fairly serious."
Schiller warned against drawing any negative conclusions about New
Square based on the Saudi situation. "It is a mistake to view a
religious practice negatively just because another culture, aspects of
which we may find troubling, also practices it," he said. At the same
time, the New Square spokesman was critical of the Bush
administration's efforts in the Middle East.
"American foreign policy has moved towards a messianic, crusading
secularism which judges all other peoples by the standards of our own
'fashionable' elites," he said. "This monolithic utopianism inevitably
yields spiritual, moral and practical disasters."
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