Equal-rights board slams UK Hasidic ban on women drivers

Commission says Belz sect ruling against mothers driving their children to school ‘has no place in our society’

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of London (screen capture: YouTube/Mick Byrne)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of London (screen capture: YouTube/Mick Byrne)

The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission declared on Sunday that it is “unlawful” for ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in London to expel pupils if their mothers drive them to school, condemning the exclusion policy that was laid out in a recent ruling by a local Belz Hasidic sect banning women from driving.

An EHRC spokesperson said in a statement that “this sort of discrimination has no place in our society and we will be writing to leaders of the Belz educational institutions to underline their legal obligations.”

The statement noted that “it is unlawful to ban children from school attendance because their mothers, rather than their fathers, drive them there.”

According to the commission’s website, the EHRC has a mandate from parliament “to challenge discrimination, and to protect and promote human rights.”

The EHRC statement came after British Education Secretary Nicky Morgan last week launched an investigation into the new directive by leaders of the north London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community barring women from driving.

In an open letter, a number of Belz rabbis in the Stamford Hill suburb had written that female drivers defied Hasidic norms as well as “traditional rules of modesty.” The rabbis also said that, as of August, children driven to school by their mothers would be expelled.

Morgan called the directive “completely unacceptable in modern Britain,” and said the government was taking the matter “very seriously.”

The ban is believed to be unprecedented in the UK, and has prompted comparisons with bans on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

The new guidelines were endorsed by the leaders of the local Belz educational institutions and by the Israeli Belz rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who suggested the expulsion policy as a form of punishment.

Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London. (photo credit: CC BY dcaseyphoto, Flickr)
Orthodox Jews in the Stamford Hill section of London (CC BY-dcaseyphoto, Flickr)

The letter explained that “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” prompted the new measures after numerous complaints led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions.”

While many ultra-Orthodox women belonging to the Belz sect do not drive anyway, a report from the weekly Jewish Chronicle newspaper noted that the Stamford Hill directive is thought to be the first formal declaration against women drivers by a Jewish community in Britain.

One local rabbi told the paper that he supported the policy because it upheld the community’s traditional values. “It’s always been regarded in Hasidic circles as not the done thing for a lady to drive,” he commented.

However, a Stamford Hill woman interviewed by the paper argued that the policy was discriminatory and “disables women.”

“The more kids they have, the more they need to drive,” she said.

The Belz dynasty is one of the largest and most powerful religious movements in Israel, and has sizable communities in the UK, US and Canada.

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