A ruling this week by rabbis in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in North London banning women drivers has sparked backlash, with some comparing the policy to Saudi Arabia's similar ban on women driving. A group of Orthodox Jews are pictured here in London, March 15, 2008. Reuters

The leaders of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in North London have banned women from driving, in a move that has sparked outrage and comparisons to Saudi Arabia’s widely condemned ban on female drivers. A letter endorsed last week by rabbis of the Hasidic Belz sect in Stamford Hill said that women drivers defied “traditional rules of modesty” and that those who continue to drive would risk having their children barred from school, the Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday.

Leaders of the sect’s educational institutions sent out the letter introducing the policy in response to what they said was “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions” toward increased evidence of women driving their children to school. The letter added that starting in August, children would no longer be allowed to attend their lessons at the community’s school if their mothers continue to drive them, in accordance with a recommendation by the sect’s leader, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach.

The policy has provoked fury from Jewish activists, who have bristled at the notion that such a policy is in accordance with Orthodox Jewish teachings. “That it masquerades as a halachic imperative is shameful and disturbing,” said Dina Brawer, the U.K. ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, to the Chronicle, referring to halacha, a concept that can be translated as Jewish law or tradition. “The instinct behind such a draconian ban is one of power and control, of men over women. In this sense it is no different from the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia."

Another local woman told the paper that the policy “disables women.” “The more kids they have, the more they need to drive,” she said, adding that she was nonetheless skeptical about it being taken seriously by women and that most would likely disregard the ruling.

The predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Stamford Hill is home to one of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in the world, after Israel and New York. The Belz sect is among the largest and most powerful of Hasidic movements, with sizable communities in the U.K. and North America. It is often seen as relatively moderate in comparison to other Hasidic groups. While many Hasidic women do not drive anyway, the sect's directive is seen as the first formal ban in the U.K. against women driving.