A New York City Bus Gives Women the Back Seat

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This week, a woman was told to give up her seat in the front of a Brooklyn bus. The front was reserved for men, riders said. Her place was in the back with the other women.

While this might seem an impossible reality for the Big Apple in 2011, the bus follows traditional Hasidic Jewish sex restrictions and has operated in a predominantly Hasidic area since 1973. It does not run during Friday night and Saturday’s Sabbath rest, and signs tell women to pay the driver but to then enter through the back door to sit behind male passengers.

For men and women in ultra-conservative religious traditions, keeping the sexes separate is still fairly routine. Women often sit behind men or a barrier in mosques. The Amish also require different seating areas in worship services. And Hasidic Jews similarly require men to sit or walk in front of women since even seeing them would violate purity.

It would be one thing if this were strictly a private bus operating for the Hasidic community. But that is not the case—while operated by a franchised owner, the bus has a public route, and the Department of Transportation says that the bus was designed for public use. On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated that the city does not permit such sex segregation. “Private people: you can have a private bus,” he said at a news conference. “Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it.” So far, the Hasidic community has yet to respond, but it looks like the words of one woman are being heard.

MORE: What The Bible Has to Say About Sex

Elizabeth Dias is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter @elizabethjdias. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter @TIME.

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