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.
That’s Frimet Goldberger, speaking of her hometown, a hamlet called Kiryas Joel (pop. 22,000) in upstate New York, somewhere between New York City and Poughkeepsie. The town is populated almost exclusively by Haredi Jews, an umbrella term for several types of Orthodox Judaism like (Hasidic Judaism), all characterized by its rejection of modern secular culture.
According to Patheos, the town ranked as the most impoverished in the nation according to the 2008 census, more than two-thirds living below the poverty line and nearly half receiving food stamps. It also has the youngest median age of any US town — only 13.2 years-of-age, likely because Haredis tend to have many children.
Despite its youthful population and reliance on federal aid to stay fed, the town has a strong conservative lean and has suffered many accusations of corruption, including but not limited to vote-rigging and electoral fraud. In 2011, a federal judge dismissed a suit that sought to dissolve Kiryas Joel on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional theocracy.
The dominant culture in the town dictates that women not be allowed to drive, for reasons detailed by Goldberger above. Because the town is so impoverished and generally isolated, Goldberger and her husband are among the few who managed to leave the often-oppressive community.
“I still live in Rockland County in New York, not too far from the village where I grew up,” she writes on Pri.org. “But if the mileage on my car is proof of anything, it’s that I’ve traveled far from where I used to be.”