Switching Seats Because I'm A Woman

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I examine a conflict scenario that has been making its way into the news lately, one in which an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man (also known as a "Haredi") asks one or more people on an airplane to switch their seats to enable him to avoid sitting next to a woman, as an accommodation to his religious observance.  My column explains the religious doctrinal basis for the religious man's request ("Negiyah"), and I consider the perspectives of both the religious man and the woman in the situation and conclude that his request--though it may seem relatively trivial, particularly given his minority status--is capable of inflicting a lot more harm on the woman than might be apparent at first glance.  Having said this, I want to consider in this post how I personally would react to such a request, were a Haredi man to ask me to switch seats so that he would not have to sit next to me on an airplane.

I predict that, in my own case, my answer to the request would depend primarily on two factors, neither of which have that much to do with the issues I identified in my column:  First, how important is it for the flight to leave on time?  (that is, how costly is the delay that I might occasion by refusing to accommodate the religious man's request?); Second, how does the religious man go about making his request of me?

The first factor is purely practical.  If neither I nor the other people on the airplane seem especially stressed out by the possibility that the flight on which we are traveling will arrive at its destination somewhat later than originally scheduled, then that fact would give me the freedom to make my decision on the basis of whether I truly wanted to accommodate this person's request.  On the other hand, if I or others on my flight are at risk of missing a connecting flight if we do not leave the gate on time, then I will feel tremendous pressure to do what is necessary to facilitate an on-time departure.  Even if I would otherwise be inclined to say no to what I regarded as an offensive request, I might not have the luxury of doing so.  By analogy, a parent of a young child who is about to have a temper tantrum in a public place might accommodate the child's unreasonable request (for a candy, for example), rather than stand on principle and create a scene.

In the case of the Haredi requesting a seat change, of course, an airline could require that everyone either sit in his or her assigned seat or vacate the plane.  This approach would spare me the pressure of having to accommodate a request I would prefer not to accommodate.  It would also, however, potentially implicate the airline in actionable failure to accommodate a religious request, and such a failure could conceivably--if other, similar secular requests are regularly accommodated or perhaps even if they are not--qualify as religious discrimination.

Assume, however, that there is no time pressure.  No one on the flight is in much of a hurry, and I have the freedom to decide whether or not to grant the Haredi's request without regard to this extrinsic factor.  What do I do?

My inclination is to attend very closely to how the Haredi frames his request to me.  I believe that the doctrine of Negiyah itself is objectionable, but I would not necessarily visit the consequences of my belief on every ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who observes the doctrine.  Many people--particularly those who are highly devout in their observance--follow the doctrinal requirements of their religions without necessarily endorsing or buying into the philosophical ideology behind a particular doctrine.  To put this differently, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men may not have dedicated themselves unequivocally to the underlying meaning of "Negiyah" and might even find it troubling but nonetheless feel bound by it as an inseparable part of the religious observance that they regard as mandatory and non-negotiable.

Why do I mention these possibilities?  Because my inclination to grant a request that I switch seats as an accommodation to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man's request would increase tremendously if I sensed that he (a) understood that what he was asking of me would quite likely be hurtful and insulting, (b) felt some sense of regret about generating such hurt and insult, and (c) perhaps even recognized the legitimacy of the view that the entire doctrine is fraught with misogyny (although this last of the three is a great deal to ask of someone who has embraced the doctrine as a way of life).

Consider two scenarios:

Scenario One:

Haredi:  Excuse me, m'am, but I was assigned by the airline to sit next to you, and you are female.  Under Jewish law, sitting next to you would be an "averah," or a sin for me.  If you could just switch seats with the gentleman sitting directly behind you, also a window seat, that would solve the problem."

Scenario Two:

Haredi:  Excuse me.  I'm so sorry to bother you, but I have what will surely sound like a strange request to make of you.  I intend no offense at all by this request, but my religion prohibits me from being in physical contact with a woman who is not my wife.  Since the seats on this flight are so narrow and close together, my sitting in my assigned seat would place me in violation of that religious prohibition.  I realize that this probably sounds peculiar to you, but I am hoping that you will nonetheless do me an enormous favor and switch seats with one of the men seated on this flight.  I would be so grateful if you would agree to do this, and I'd be glad to make the inquiries if there is a particular seat to which you would be willing to switch.  Please forgive me for this imposition, particularly since we are strangers.

If I faced the situation in scenario two, I would almost certainly grant his request (unless there were some other compelling reason for me to refuse).  By framing it as he did, he makes it clear that he understands that he is not entitled to have me move, notwithstanding his religious obligation.  He also makes clear his recognition of my own perspective and the fact that his request will probably sound strange to me.  He communicates effectively that his request comes entirely from a need that he has, and he makes clear that I am not socially or morally obliged to fulfill that need and will do so, if I do, only because I would like to help him out as a favor.

Facing the first scenario, by contrast, I would be sorely tempted to say no (or, at the very least, to attempt to educate him about how he is coming across as a prelude to considering saying yes).  By contrast to the man in the second scenario, this man behaves as though I am under an obligation to solve his problem--the problem that arises because his religion makes demands of him that have run into conflict with a social context in which men and women are integrated rather than segregated.  He accordingly views me as an obstacle to his observance rather than as someone with whom he can engage productively to try to find a solution to a problem that I had no hand in creating and for which I am not responsible.

The fact that I would react so differently to the two requests highlights the importance of how we communicate with one another.  It may sometimes seem as though the important thing, when communicating, is simple content, especially when we converse online and it is challenging to remember that there is someone with feelings, needs, and a perspective on the other end of the cyberline.  But the reality is that despite all of the principles that might drive me either to agree or to refuse to grant a request that is itself fraught with meaning, the deciding factor may very well be the style and tone of the communication.  If it is non-violent, considerate, and conscious of the perspective on the other side of the conversation, I will be inclined to say yes.