This Is Not Saudi Arabia: In One New York Town, Women Aren’t Allowed to Drive

Have you heard of Kiryas Joel? The overwhelmingly Haredi town of 22,000 people, located about halfway between New York City and Poughkeepsie,

… has by far the youngest median age population of any municipality in the United States, and the youngest, at 13.2 years old, of any population center of over 5,000 residents in the United States. Residents of Kiryas Joel, like those of other Haredi Jewish communities, typically have large families.

According to 2008 census figures, the village has the highest poverty rate in the nation. More than two-thirds of residents live below the federal poverty line and 40% receive food stamps.


Kiryas Joel

The rapidly-growing municipality has been in the news on and off not just because of that dubious distinction, but also because of the way it set up its school district (violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause). In addition, Kiryas Joel has been dogged for 25 years by repeated allegations of vote-rigging and other electoral fraud perpetrated by the Haredi.

It is in this uber-pious, ultra-conservative town that women are excluded from driving cars, writes Frimet Goldberger, who grew up there.

In my hometown, women can’t be jailed for driving like they can in Saudi Arabia. But driving is still forbidden. A woman who drives would risk being shunned, and her children expelled from the private Hasidic school. She could be excommunicated from the community.

Growing up, it never dawned on me that driving was a possibility. No woman in my family or neighborhood ever did. We were taught that our tznius, our modesty, would be at stake.

Modesty, I’m fairly certain, is a sales tactic, a guise, a ruse. These prohibitions are mostly about something else: control. Most likely, that’s also the driving force (ha!) behind Saudi women not being allowed in the driver’s seat.

Goldberger concurs:

For Hasidic women, being banned from the wheel means being tied to your husband and to your community. Driving gives you the keys to freedom and independence.

Like Deborah Feldman, who wrote Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Frimet Goldberger had the courage and wherewithal to extricate herself from that miserable, oppressive way of living. In fact, she and her husband both got out.

She now has her driver’s license. May she go far.

(Image via Wikipedia)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.