Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Feminist Activists Challenging The Male-Dominated Political Landscape

It’s no secret that women are not equally represented in the majority of nations around the world in government. Well, except for Rwanda, where women actually outnumber men at a federal level. Although there have been a number of countries which have broken the highest, hardest glass ceiling and elected a female leader or which currently have one, women still have a long way to go.

Sadly, women running for office or those who currently hold public servant positions often receive the type of sexist and discriminatory backlash that men have never had to, especially considering a position of power has always been default for men. Yet there is a global movement pushing for more women to run for political leadership and it is exciting to watch.

Here in the US, advocacy organization Emily’s List which helps women run for office, form state to federal positions, shared how they have seen a massive number of women indicate they would like to launch campaigns ever since the 2016 presidential election. To be more precise, 12,000 women have decided they want to be part of the #resistance, which is a 1000% increase from the previous year.

In Israel, a revolution of is own is happening among women, and its most exciting to see it emerging in the ultra-orthodox communities where traditionally women are not encouraged to become public representatives or have a role outside the home. Two feminist activists who are part of this wave are determined to challenge the Haredi community’s male-dominated mindset and increase representation of conservative women in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.

Esty Shushan and Estee Rieder-Indursky founded a non-profit organization called Nivcharot, or “the elected women”, according to a profile on their work in The Washington Post. They came together and began their political advocacy of women 5 years ago before the 2013 Israeli elections. Now they want their message to be known worldwide in order to encourage more Haredi women to join the fight and run for office.

Esty Shushan is a married & mother of 4 who has a background in advertising, media and film. She is the creator of a short film called ‘Barren’ which deals with the peer pressure to birth and raise large families in Haredi communities, and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Both Esty and Estee Rieder-Indursky were also political reporters who had to write under male pseudonyms because they knew men would not “accept” the opinions of a woman. At first the duo were happy to earn an income while looking after their families, but after a while the novelty wore off and they wanted to be able to publicly state their names alongside their work.

Esty quit writing in 2012 and launched an advocacy group called No Voice No Vote, on Facebook, a page that urged Haredim to boycott the ballot box unless the political parties representing them agreed to include women on their Knesset slates. While they were not successful in that particular mission, her advocacy has sparked a burgeoning movement, both online and offline, and the Facebook Page today has over 10,000 followers.

Since working together, both Esty and Estee are focusing their efforts on dismantling political traditions among the Ultra-Orthodox political parties which keep Haredi women from voicing their issues and concerns, as well as encouraging more orthodox women to seek leadership themselves. They women liken themselves to modern day Suffragettes, who faced plenty of backlash and negativity for wanting the ability to vote, and who refused to be timid and meek in their political actions.

“As Haredi women, we face many battles. It took me awhile to realize that fighting those battles starts up there,” said Esty. As WaPo’s Ruth Eglash explains, by “up there” she means the highest level of leadership.

The current Orthodox parties in the Knesset generally adhere to guidelines set out by conservative religious leaders, and it should surprise no one that they don’t look to highly on women in political leadership. Traditionally, Haredi women did stay home and look after the home and children while the men would work.

Due to the gradual change in the roles of women and women in the family and society, more and more ultra-orthodox women are working outside the home, and similar to what we see in other male-dominated and religious environments, the male spiritual leaders become concerned that they will start becoming influenced by people other than their husband and start to think for themselves.

Esty and Estee are determined not to let patriarchy and the threat of push-back stop them from empowering other women in their communities. They’re not even trying to go against the ultra-orthodox culture, so to speak, they are simply looking for more female voices to represent the issues of the women in their communities, rather than only relying on the men to speak on their behalf.

“In my opinion, this change will happen, the question is just when?. How do I know it will happen? Because it has happened all over the world. It’s just a matter of time,” said Estee to WaPo.

And they’re not going to go about their activism quietly, or even anonymously like their former reporting careers. The women recently petitioned the Supreme Court to acknowledge that any party which discriminates against women should not be considered legitimate in the Knesset.

In an interview with Haaretz in 2016 which profiled a number of Haredi activists breaking the traditional conservative mold, Estee credits the access to social media as a huge part of allowing women to form their own communities and speak out in ways like never before.

“You have to take into account that with social media, there’s a ripple effect that is stronger than the actual numbers…The walls of paper that once kept us out have now collapsed,” she said.

Both women say there are member of their own families who have asked them to stop speaking out, including their children, because of the social pressure they face. But they see the bigger picture and know how their seemingly antagonistic work today will mean other Haredi women will have less barriers tomorrow.

“All I see is Haredi women’s voices silenced in our community,” said Estee.

The WaPo reports ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10% of Israeli society with only 2 political parties representing them in the Knesset. That’s 13 Haredi members out of a total 120 members in Parliament (including 3 government ministers), and none of them are women. The founders of Nivcharot are determined to change this, and we are thrilled to see the growing movement of women globally who are stepping into their power and creating space for their voices and concerns where they have traditionally been left out.

In 2015 Esty Shushan gave a TEDx Talk in Jerusalem about her feminist activism which you can watch below and be inspired by:

Leave a Reply