Haredi feminist pushes for her rights

 

Years ago, thanks to the emergence of the Internet, Esty Shushan was able to start commiserating with other haredi women about their powerlessness.

The haredi communities of Israel ­– known for their strict Torah-observance, with men wearing black suits and brimmed black hats – have barred women from participating in their political parties. To the rabbis, it may be a matter of tradition. But to Shushan and some of the women she met on the Internet, it has been an unacceptable limitation.

From those online discussions, to starting a Facebook page, to founding a nonprofit, Shushan recounted her journey on Oct. 10 at the Wisconsin Club’s Country Club on Good Hope Road. Shushan spoke there to dozens of women at the 2018 Lion of Judah & Pomegranate Society Luncheon, organized by Woman’s Philanthropy of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. As the founder and co-CEO of Nivcharot, she told them, “We are in the last fight of the suffragettes.”

The event was co-chaired by Judy Guten and Cathy Peltz. Sue Strait was given the International Lion of Judah Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award.

Nivcharot is a group of haredi women concerned with the welfare, rights and issues of haredi women in Israel. The group seeks to improve the present circumstances of women in the community, and to foster more equality between men and women.

The Orthodox feminist leader explained that Israel’s haredi culture has shifted over time. In addition to the Internet opening up the outside world to women, they’ve been increasingly asked to get into the workforce, while their husbands study Torah. This has exposed the women to new ways of thinking.

She remembered the impact of the Internet during her talk: “Everything they did not dare to talk about with their family at the Shabbat table, everything was out.”

“Under anonymous nicknames we wrote about everything,” she recalled. “And then I realized that I am not alone. Understanding that I am not crazy.”

Haredi women have been asked to literally sit in the back of the bus. Shushan herself had to use a male pen name when she wrote for a haredi newspaper. And haredi political parties have rules against allowing female candidates for the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Nivcharot supported a petition to force the parties to change that stance and the Israeli Supreme Court pressured one party, Agudath Israel, to change its rules. In response, Agudath Israel in September said it would eliminate its rule barring women from running for office, but that nothing would actually change.

Activists have responded that for them, it’s not 2018, it’s 1918, and they are in the middle of the suffragist fight. “Speaking about women’s rights … it’s actually an indication that something is wrong with you,” Shushan said. A rabbi said her group needed psychiatric help, she said.

When the Washington Post contacted the two haredi parties in 2017 for comment on Shushan and her organization, they did not respond.

At 26, Shushan was a mother of 4. Now, in her early 40s, she’s an activist and leader. Her organization is training women for political leadership as it fights for a woman’s right to serve.

“Today when I am here with you … I don’t really believe that it’s me, the silent terrified woman that I was before,” Shushan said. “I want to say that to that child, woman that I was, and to every woman, girl in the world, I want to tell her and all other women in the world that experience pain violence and silence …. Your pain is political. Your tears are public ones. Your frustration is social.”

“What you experience is not because anything is wrong with you … by the name of any religion. It’s the part of a system that all of us are going to change ….”

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About this story:

Esty Shushan of Israel founded the “No Voice, No Vote” (Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot) Facebook page in 2012.