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Move Over, Saudi Arabia, There's a Jewish Community In New York Where Women Can't Drive

You don't have to go to the Middle East to find a place where female drivers are haram.

The misogyny inherent in the Abrahamic religions have caused women much suffering for many centuries. While men hardly need religion as an excuse to treat women poorly, sexism becomes all the more difficult to extinguish when it has the stamp of approval from the heavenly father. (A heavenly mother may have yielded a different story.) Whenever and wherever these religions have flourished in their more fundamental forms, the consequences have been ghastly for the female sex.

Though much of the religiously-motivated anti-woman fervor has been tamed since the Enlightenment, this odious nonsense manages to persist even in countries that have separated the religious from the secular. For a stellar example of this, look no further than 50 miles northwest of New York City at the village of Kiryas Joel. The vast majority of the community's 22,000 residents are ultra-Orthodox Jews with some very retrograde views on women's rights.

The account of Frimet Goldberger, a former member of the Kiryas Joel community, bears this out. She recently spoke with Public Radio International about her experience, which is nothing short of astonishing:

"[I]n Kiryas Joel, women don’t drive. It’s a village of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews. In my hometown, women can't be jailed for driving like they can in Saudi Arabia. But driving is still forbidden. A woman who drives would risk being shunned, and her children expelled from the private Hasidic school. She could be excommunicated from the community.

"Growing up, it never dawned on me that driving was a possibility. No woman in my family or neighborhood ever did. We were taught that our tznius, our modesty, would be at stake. But I think there’s something else. For Hasidic women, being banned from the wheel means being tied to your husband and to your community. Driving gives you the keys to freedom and independence."

This is the same Kiryas Joel where in 1986, hundreds of boys refused to ride buses driven by women. Naturally, the community concluded that the problem wasn't the sexist boys it was raising, but the female drivers, which is why there's no such thing anymore.

A website for the Kiryas Joel community elaborates:

"This modesty extends to other issues as well, for example, the women of Kiryas Joel and other Satmar [Hasidic sect] women do not drive automobiles. In addition to raising the children, Kiryas Joel women are often the ones who pay the bills, balance the checkbook and organize the home and family."

You may be inclined to ask what's keeping the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men so busy that their wives must shoulder many of these burdens. If the men of Kiryas Joel are anything like their Israeli counterparts, the answer may very well be that they spend much of their day studying Jewish holy texts. Data from Israel indicates a general aversion to work among ultra-Orthodox men. As of 2010, 65% of them do not work, compared to 15% of the general population.

Not surprisingly, they're pretty defensive about it. So much so that when one ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel had the audacity to suggest that welfare payments to his conservative brethren be curtailed and that more of them become employed, he was expunged from his own political party and had to be assigned a bodyguard. (Gravy trains brake hard.) And like the numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, those in Kiryas Joel are quickly increasing thanks to their propensity to procreate. In Kiryas Joel, Jews often marry at age 18 or 19 and produce six to eight children. As a result, the median age of the village is the lowest in the country at 11.4 years. This, despite the fact that two-thirds of the residents live below the federal poverty level, and some 40% of its children are on food stamps.

This is not rational behavior. Then again, there is nothing rational about religion. It's the same mentality that drives some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to segregate buses and refuse to sit next to female passengers on airplanes because they say the magic words, "It's my faith."

It's their faith, all right. But it's also something else: sexist, stupid, and downright backwards.

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