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.

10 responses to “When Religious Airline Passengers Ask Women to Move”

  1. tuckerfan says:

    Churlish may be to strong, but yes all things being equal the polite thing to do is to accommodate the man. As I understand it (and while you were in yeshiva I was in Catholic school, so you knowledge is probably better then mine) the objection to touching women comes from purity laws. I think the duty falls to the Orthodox man making the request to explain it in that light, to assure the female passenger that he is making the request because his touching a woman not his wife or daughter violates the purity laws of his faith. He should be willing to calmly explain the issue. Now if she is being asked to trade an aisle seat for a middle seat in a full row, al bets are off.

  2. Curious says:

    This doesn’t resolve everything, but why on earth doesn’t the man ask for another seat?

  3. Ms. Colb,

    Thank you for bringing up such an interesting perspective and filling in the blanks for those unfamiliar with the practice.

    For reasons to follow, I believe you and I are at odds on this issue and would like to see more of your writing on the topic to help me examine my opinions to determine where I may have gone astray.

    As a strictly civil rights matter, my perspective has always been that the aim of the Constitution was predominantly to prevent majority oppression of a minority. This seems further reinforced in the Bill of Rights specifically protecting individuals from governmental excess by protecting the rights of individuals, rather than groups.

    I, too, have learned – and generally understood it to be the primary rationale for Negiyah – that it is the frailty of the male ethic that is the reason for the practice and that menses, while also a consideration is secondary.

    Given the Jewish beliefs regarding the touching of blood as being, generally, unclean I understand the simulated Chassid in your scenario. After all, to kasher meat (render it fit for eating, assuming all other requirements have been met before the cooking process begins) requires alternating salt and water baths to remove all blood. This is the reason it is so difficult to find kosher meat from below the lumbar spine on an otherwise kosher animal. The greater veins of the lower extremities make it all but impossible to assure the removal of all blood from the meat. Even eggs must be inspected for the presence of visible blood before cooking – the only exception being hard boiled, of course.

    The rabbis under whom I studied taught us that women are inherently more spiritually attuned to G_D and are therefore excused from any mitzvah (literally Law” but often used interchangeably as commandment) that is related to time. A Jewish woman can begin Shabbat early in her home by lighting candles before the proscribed time, but is not bound to prayer at the designated times of day for the Sh’ma or Amidah.

    I would, given this perspective, likely try to explain to the woman that the place of women in Judaism is sacrosanct and that the gentleman’s desire to not touch is more likely due to his inherent ethical frailty – in Chassidic shuls there is a practice I had not been familiar with; that of tying a belt around a man’s waist before beginning prayer to signify the separation of the animal part of our nature from our intellect. Women have no such practice that I am aware of.

    Thank you, again, Ms. Colb for bringing up this issue as it is almost certain to generate a great deal of examination and lead to improved understanding between cultures and that would almost inevitably lead to better relations across the myriad cultures living in this country.

    With deep respect and kindest regards,


  4. shanen says:

    Hey, if we all observed their religious beliefs, then there would be NO passenger airplanes with seats of any sorts. Fancy technologies are NOT officially sanctioned by any of the ancient religions. Therefore the obvious solution is to tell the religious fanatics to stop traveling by plane. If donkeys and galleys were good enough for Biblical times, then they need to adjust their travel schedules and stay out of our way.

    No, I’m NOT racist or self-hating or interested in your other ad hominem responses. I haven’t even flown in some years, and perhaps I’ll never fly again. I’m just sick and tired of religious fanatics trying to impose their ignorance and prejudices on the rest of us. In this case, women are NOT unclean by default, and if you sincerely believe that, you need a psychologist more than you need to thump your Bible.

  5. Comentator says:

    There is another solution: the religious man could exchange his assigned seat with a volunteer who was not sitting next to a woman.
    By asking the woman sitting next to him to give up her seat, the religious man would be asking her to make a sacrifice for his religious beliefs. That’s the case even if she’s willing to do it: there’s inconvenience involved in moving, a risk of ending up with a worse seat, and, as you point out, a reinforcement of the social tendency to place extra burdens on women due to their gender. In this case, the religious man would essentially be saying that his religious belief is her problem.
    In contrast, if the religious man were to give up his seat, no harm would be done. Whichever other passenger volunteered to take his seat would, inherently, think the exchange was a good deal, and the man or men sitting next to the new seat would have no basis to complain. Everyone in this scenario comes out ahead, and responsibility for solving the religious problem is rightly placed on the man with the objection, rather than an innocent bystander.

  6. Katherine Edman says:

    Excellent discussion of why the implicit “degraded otherness” of women is so pervasive and insulting. To this, I would add the question: why is it the woman who is expected to move? Why is the woman expected to be inconvenienced because of a man’s religious needs? If the man is requesting special accommodation, shouldn’t he be the one who is relocated? Or is this, once again, symptom of a societal expectation that a woman’s inconvenience is less important than a man’s? Put him in the middle seat, between two other men. I’m sure some person in another part of the plane would be happy to switch out of that middle seat.

    • shanen says:

      Several people have raised this suggestion of making the religious fanatic do the moving, but I’ll just add that it should be done with an extremely public announcement over the plane’s speakers so EVERYONE can know what a bigot misogynist he is.

      Just kidding. I still think they shouldn’t be on planes. Their lack of faith in science is more likely to cause the plane to crash than they are likely to get fatal cooties from any woman.

  7. ingeborg oppenheimer says:

    the answer to this dilemma seems so simple and logical that it amazes me that it is even viewed as a dilemma! in principle, any individual with a religious need must take responsibility on his or her own to have that need met. in this instance, for example, the orthodox male might buy tickets for two adjoining seats. he would then be entitled to request at the time of boarding that the seat next to him remain empty, should he be asked by cabin crew to allow someone to sit there. in any case, such individuals are not entitled to accommodations by airlines that infringe on the rights of other passengers.

  8. Moishe_Pipik says:

    The First Amendment and the Constitution identify freedom to practice one’s religion as fundamentally important in this country, but all the qualifications to it that are made every day, when it “offends” or “degrades” or inconveniences someone else are bringing us ever closer to the old Soviet model, where religion is honored in principle and abhorred or prohibited in reality. We need to be more respectful of the fact that religious principles guide many people’s view of their life on this planet, and allow them to practice their beliefs with tolerance, if not understanding, by others.

  9. natsera says:

    I think the obvious answer is that the man should have requested this accommodation before his scheduled flight time. There are plenty of rows in airplanes that turn out to be all male, so why couldn’t he request that? It would be a way to accommodate his religious needs without offending any women.