When Religious Airline Passengers Ask Women to Move

Posted in: Civil Rights

A variety of news venues have lately highlighted a conflict that can arise between ultra-Orthodox Jewish men on an airplane and some of their female fellow passengers. In such a conflict, the man might ask a woman seated in an adjacent seat to move to a different seat, or might ask other people on the plane to switch with the man or with the woman next to him. The man’s purpose is to avoid sitting next to a woman who is not his wife. In this column, I examine the competing values at issue in such conflicts.

Putting the Law to One Side

One could, in response to a conflict of this sort, either advocate for a new law or attempt to construe existing legislation to support one or the other side. On the one hand, the ultra-Orthodox man is perhaps entitled to an accommodation for his religious observance, and it is arguably religious discrimination for the airline to deny him this accommodation (if it were to do so in response to a request). On the other hand, a female passenger who wishes to remain in her assigned seat is perhaps entitled to be free of the sex discrimination that the airline seemingly endorses by either asking her to change her seat (if it were to ask her to do so) or by assigning her a “separate” seat in the first instance, at the request of the ultra-Orthodox man, when she would otherwise have been assigned the seat next to him. In other words, there is space in such a conflict—if the airline is brought into the picture—to argue that either illegal religious discrimination or illegal sex discrimination is potentially in play.

Rather than consider the conflict in legal terms, however, I would like to examine the equities of the individual-versus-individual dilemma, because how (and whether) we apply the law to the situation depends at least in part on the fundamental norms that ought to govern the conflict as it plays out in individual confrontations.

My Own Priors

To be fair to readers, I must disclose that I grew up an Orthodox Jew. I was not ultra-Orthodox, but at least one of the yeshivas (Jewish schools) that I attended strongly endorsed the religious doctrine upon which the objecting male flight passengers have presumably been relying: Negiyah, which in Hebrew literally means “touch.” The “Negiyah” doctrine provides that Jewish men may not come into physical contact with a woman who is either menstruating or has completed her monthly period (plus a buffer zone of approximately one week) but has not (yet) ritually bathed in a “mikvah” (a Jewish ritual bath) to purify herself.

Since an ultra-Orthodox man is (for obvious reasons) unlikely to be familiar either with the menstrual cycle or the purification rituals of a woman who happens to be seated next to him on an airplane, the only safe course for him is not to touch any woman other than his wife (and to touch her only during the permissible times of the month). There is obviously a lot more to be said on this subject, so please understand that this is a highly incomplete summary of part of the religious doctrine. An updated version of the doctrine, for example, prohibits contact (particularly sexual contact) with women to whom a man is not married, regardless of their menstrual purity.

If a man sits next to a woman on an airplane (especially in the coach section of the sort of airplane that we have all come to know and love), it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to completely avoid coming into physical contact with the woman. For similar reasons, at ultra-Orthodox wedding celebrations, men not only dance separately from women but are also seated separately for meals.

Though I attended a school that taught the Negiyah doctrine, I and my family never practiced it when I was growing up. Indeed, my mother (who practiced a version of what we might call “modern Orthodoxy”) found it offensive when she would attempt to shake hands with a religious man, and he would refuse to do so, because of the Negiyah doctrine. In her view (a view in which she was not alone), the doctrine was supposed to be about avoiding sexual contact, not all physical contact, and therefore, refusing to shake hands (or, if my mother had encountered the situation, refusing to sit next to a woman on an airplane) is just pointless and rude.

I also learned in my yeshiva studies that a major authority among the ultra-Orthodox took the position that if a woman extends her hand to a man, he should shake her hand (rather than refusing to do so on “Negiyah” grounds) and thus spare her the shame and confusion that she would likely experience at his refusal. Though I did not observe the doctrine, I found this interpretation of it to be humane and kind relative to the alternative.

The Respective Feelings of the Participants in a Conflict

For an ultra-Orthodox man who believes it is his religious obligation to avoid touching any woman (other than his wife, during her purity phase), the prospect of sitting next to a woman (not his wife) on an airplane is undoubtedly very threatening and anxiety-provoking. In the course of the flight, I imagine that he would make every effort, possibly fruitlessly, to avoid coming into physical contact with the woman next to him, and he would feel tremendous guilt about the unavoidable, occasional touch. I have some sympathy for these feelings, because they strike me as very similar to the experience of a patient suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) who is stopped from doing what he feels compelled to do. I draw this analogy as a way of acknowledging the psychic pain that the man would feel in the situation, rather than as a way of making light of his concerns.

For a woman who has been assigned a seat (let us assume a seat that she wants) on an airplane, the request to switch seats is, at least initially, annoying. People generally want to get settled into their assigned seats and prefer, perhaps due in part to the phenomenon of loss aversion, to keep what they have rather than trade it for something similar. Once the woman learns, however, why she is being asked to switch seats, her annoyance is likely to evolve into something different.

In some cases, the woman will feel sympathetic and simply agree to make the switch (maybe she too practices a minority religion and understands the distress that accompanies misunderstandings about it and refusals to accommodate). In other cases, perhaps even most other cases, the woman will feel offended and shamed by the request. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the implicit message of a religious prohibition against a man sitting next to a woman on an airplane is that there is something dirty, impure, or shameful about being a woman, a kind of moral contagion that the man must avoid like an infection. The woman, in this scenario, could easily perceive herself in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox man as literally “untouchable” and feel very hurt and demeaned by this apparent characterization.

The man’s response might be “this is nothing personal; it’s just my religion.” But it is in fact very personal, though it may not be person-specific. The religious rule in this case singles out an individual in virtue of her sex and seeks to remove her from the presence of the man making the request. It may, indeed, be experienced as comparable to having one’s seatmate say “Can you please switch seats with someone else? You have a body odor/halitosis that I find very nauseating.” Or “Can you switch seats? The sight of your face/body gives me the creeps.” There are lots of people next to whom many would prefer not to sit, but saying that something about “your body” makes you an unacceptable seatmate is almost necessarily hurtful, and when the “unacceptability” is a feature of one’s gender, a feeling of humiliation about the request itself (regardless of whether one accommodates it) would not be surprising.

Frequency and Minority Status

One way to think about such conflicts, to the extent that they are relatively rare, is to note that we are dealing with a minority religious group engaged in a minority religious practice, so the woman in the situation (part of the majority) may decide to feel unharmed by what the ultra-Orthodox man seeks. She can derive strength from the fact that most people around her think like she does rather than like the ultra-Orthodox man does, and she can generously accommodate his peculiar request without absorbing any offensive messaging within it.

I have a difficult time accepting this seemingly reasonable way of thinking about things, however. Though the man who asks the woman to switch seats may be in the minority, the notion that women are something “less” than men, something to be either adored and pursued for their sexual attractiveness or insulted for their femaleness and perceived feminine inadequacy, is not a marginal or minority idea. Most women, even those living in relatively enlightened parts of the world, have encountered shaming and insults directly at their being women, in one form or another. In this respect, though the request to move seats may be novel, the underlying philosophy of a degraded female biology, a biology that may be considered simply instrumental to male pleasure or disposable and to be avoided, is hardly novel at all.

One example of this reality is the way in which older women—largely considered less sexually desirable than younger women—are often treated as objects of scorn or as completely invisible. The ultra-Orthodox man’s request, then, may resonate with a much larger process of misogyny and sexism that women experience in their daily lives, rather than being a “one-time” event that can be laughed off or ignored.

I find the dilemma here quite difficult. My inclination (as may be obvious already) would be to support the woman who refuses to provide the accommodation requested, and I would find frustrating if the man were able to hold the flight’s take-off time “hostage” to his receiving an accommodation. I realize that airplanes (and fellow passengers) make all sorts of accommodations for one another that go unnoticed, so it may be churlish of me to wish to deny the ultra-Orthodox man this particular one. But I have a difficult time imagining that many people would want to accommodate someone who claimed (even sincerely) that his religion prohibits him from touching an African American person or another person he identifies by race or ethnicity. It is perhaps the failure to be sufficiently outraged when the “untouchability” is a feature of being female—the overall acceptance that segregating women is sometimes appropriate and religiously understandable—against which I find myself strongly rebelling.