Gender segregation as identity politics

I’ve seen the name Eboo Patel often in discussions of “interfaith” activities, but I haven’t (that I recall) read anything of his until now. He has a long piece at Religion Dispatches arguing that we should be more accommodating toward haredi men who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes. That’s where “interfaith” takes you, I guess. It’s where privileging “faith” over more reasonable and careful ways of thinking takes you.

He starts by pointing out that people often do change their seats to be helpful to others – parents traveling with children for instance.

The obvious question: why is exchanging seats on an airplane with a senior citizen, a mother with children or a uniformed veteran considered a noble gesture while doing the same for an Orthodox Jewish man viewed as acquiescing to patriarchal oppression?

Actually no, the question is not obvious at all. It’s obvious in this context only because Patel carefully set it up that way. The two kinds of situation are not comparable. Parents’ wanting to sit with their children is entirely reasonable, and understandable, and universalizable. Parents’ wanting to sit with their children is in no way prejudicial to anyone else – it’s not an expression of hostility or contempt or disgust toward people who are not their children. (There’s also the fact that parents don’t generally demand that other passengers accommodate them.)

Patel’s next move is to try to frame this conflict as identity politics.

I have found it interesting to look at this situation in light of the influential identity politics formulation that ‘the personal is political’. First advanced by women in the feminist movement, it now serves as a pretty good one-line definition of cultural progressivism more broadly. I have heard it referenced in arguments for everything from Ethnic Studies departments to LGBT safe spaces.

That the personal is political centers on two chief ideas: 1) that identities matter (the personal); and 2) that those identities express themselves in public forms (the political).

No. That’s a misunderstanding of the phrase – which I’m not convinced really is still all that influential. It’s more a second wave catchphrase, as far as I know. What it meant was that issues that affected women were not trivial merely because they were domestic or “personal” – that who washes the dishes is in fact political. I don’t recognize Patel’s version at all.

It was certainly the way many of those who commented on the Times story framed their views. As a woman (the personal), I interpret your request as patriarchal and will not move to accommodate it (the political). 

No. That’s just all wrong. Being a woman isn’t “personal” in that sense. Nobody ever talked about the Montgomery bus boycott or the sit-downs at lunch counters as “the personal is political.” He’s confused.

Women have long been marginalized by men. A man asking a woman to move on a flight may reasonably be interpreted as another chapter in a seemingly never-ending story.

I am sympathetic to such a view. But haven’t Orthodox Jews experienced a long history of oppression? As far as who feels marginalized in the specific context of a typical commercial flight, consider that separation of sexes is far more common in traditional religious environments. Does the Orthodox Jewish man have a case that secular modernity is marginalizing his identity, and that all those comfortable with the current system are complicit in his marginalization?

No, and neither do racists who “feel marginalized” in the specific context of a typical bus or plane trip in which they do not get to demand segregated seating. We’ve been over this. Plessy v Ferguson. Brown v Board of Education. Separate but equal turns out to be not equal. We’ve been over this, decades ago. Try to keep up. We don’t need to re-litigate this every time a haredi man gets on an airplane. We need to not do that.

Perhaps the central difference is that religion is a choice. One cannot help being a woman but one can choose not to be the kind of Jew who refuses to sit next to women. But cultural progressivism has long defined identity based not on straightforward physical features such as skin color or genitalia but on assigned meaning. A core value of the cultural progressive worldview is that people get to select the identities that matter to them and assign the meaning they choose.

Oh no it isn’t. Oh hell no. Not in the sense that people get to do that and then deploy those “identities” as the foundations for rights to push other people around. Nope nope nope.

For example, cultural progressives frequently advocate for minority ethnic groups to speak their native languages or dialects if they wish, and dress and wear their hair in ways that are meaningful and comfortable for them. It seems to me the Orthodox Jewish man on the plane can make the same argument. Just like the African American who chooses to wear an afro and the woman who does not shave her legs—both common expressions of the personal as political—he is assigning a particular meaning to his identity as a Jew. It just so happens that the expression of the meaning he assigns to his religious identity is in conflict with the meaning that the woman sitting in the airline seat assigns to her gender.

Give me strength. No it doesn’t “just so happen” – the difference is crucial. The haredi man’s demand for segregated seating is not comparable to choices about hair (what bizarre examples!), because it’s a demand for other people to do something for him. The haredi man gets to wear whatever he wants to (within reason – clothes with sharp spikes won’t do on sardine-can airplanes), just as Afro guy and hairy-legs woman do. None of them gets to control who sits where.

Then he goes on to an extended and annoying bleat about the putative marginalization of religion from all this identity-mongering, and how unfair it is. It’s not persuasive.


  1. doublereed says

    The obvious question: why is exchanging seats on an airplane with a senior citizen, a mother with children or a uniformed veteran considered a noble gesture while doing the same for an Orthodox Jewish man viewed as acquiescing to patriarchal oppression?

    The first examples are things that have to do with themselves. As in “I am a senior citizen. Please accommodate me.”

    The second has to do with the other person. “You are a woman. Please accommodate me.”

    I mean consider if the idea was actually “I am an Orthodox Jewish man. Please accommodate.” This would be the identity politics he’s describing. This would be segregation by religion, not gender. Doesn’t sound ‘interfaith’ at all to me. The only reason he’s acquiescing is because this is an affront against women’s dignity rather than an affront to his.

  2. Alona says

    This is ridiculous bullying baloney. It’s an extremist position even among Orthodox Jews (the traditional silly rules are that menstrual cooties are supposed to be transmissible ONLY by actual sexual contact within a marital relationship), and the men who are expanding their silly rules could coordinate their seat purchasing through a travel agent to avoid sitting next to women.

    Unless, that is, their actual goal is to bully other travelers.

    I have known plenty of men and women who observe menstrual rules without such impositions on random strangers.

  3. screechymonkey says


    why is exchanging seats on an airplane with a senior citizen, a mother with children or a uniformed veteran considered a noble gesture while doing the same for an Orthodox Jewish man viewed as acquiescing to patriarchal oppression?

    Note how he's reframed the question to make it seem that his interlocuters are criticizing the person who switches seats for the sexist, rather than the sexist?

    I'd probably switch just because it would probably be helping out the woman who would otherwise have to sit beside this jerk, but I wouldn't blame someone for refusing.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    Really, I think this issue ought to come down to the airline. Sad as it is that corporations have to lawyer up for every little thing, perhaps there should be some fine print someplace when you buy your tickets that says “Due to the class of ticket you are about to purchase, you may be asked to sit beside (list of possible passengers who fly on airplanes). If you are unable or unwilling to sit beside one of these people, you may be asked to leave the airplane with no refund.”

  5. jkarl says

    Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, and he and Chris Stedman are quite close (forewords for each other’s books, etc.). So there’s a connection.

  6. karmacat says

    I’m assuming by his last name he is Indian. So by his own argument he won’t mind moving if a racist doesn’t want to sit next to him. A racist could argue that is identity is being marginalized

  7. sarah00 says

    Does anyone else find it slightly ironic that these men who feel so marginalised by ‘secular modernity’ are having a hissy fit over seating on aeroplanes – you know, those really modern things based on things like science and engineering. It seems they’re perfectly happy with secular modernity when it suits their needs. I’d have more sympathy if they were having problems travelling by donkey but as it is, well . . . welcome to the 21st century.

  8. Al Dente says

    The Orthodox Jewish man demanding (sorry, Patel, but it’s a demand, not a request) that a woman move her seat to accommodate him is inflicting his religious dogma on a non-believer. “God thinks women have cooties, so move your ass elsewhere.”

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