The Israeli woman leading a feminist revolt in ultra-Orthodox society

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The eldest of 12 children, Esty Bitton Shushan grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home where girls were barred from learning Talmud. Don’t bother your pretty little head with subjects only men can understand, she was told from a young age. Concentrate instead on developing your cooking and baking skills, the better to find yourself a nice husband.

That didn’t put an end to her fascination with the tall, leather-bound volumes of rabbinic texts neatly lined up in her father’s study. So, she was naturally overcome with delight when he invited her one day, out of the blue, to join him for his daily Talmud study session.

“Too bad you’re not a boy,” her father, a rabbi, told her when they were done.

He didn’t need to say it explicitly but Bitton Shushan, who was then 10 years old, understood from his odd compliment that there would be no more Talmud lessons for her.

Looking back, it was a formative moment that would ultimately set her on her path to becoming a pioneering force in the Haredi feminist movement.

“Women of Valor,” a new Israeli documentary, chronicles the nearly decade-long struggle of a group of ultra-Orthodox women for political representation in Israel, with Bitton Shushan in the starring role.

Produced and directed by Anna Somershaf, the feature-length film is scheduled for broadcast later this month on Hot, Israel’s cable service provider.

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According to figures quoted in the film, there are 600,000 Haredi women in Israel who have the right to vote but not the right to run for public office. That is not entirely accurate, though, because Haredi women have run and even served in the Knesset. What is true is that they are denied representation in the two main ultra-Orthodox parties: one Ashkenazi (United Torah Judaism) and the other Mizrahi (Shas).

The mission of Nivcharot (“Elected” or “Chosen” in English), a movement co-founded by Bitton Shushan and another trailblazing Haredi feminist, Estee Rieder-Indursky, is to get ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their slates.

As the film demonstrates, the results to date have been mixed. Through a legal battle that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, Bitton Shushan and her cohorts forced the Haredi parties to amend their bylaws so they no longer stipulate that women are disqualified from running. But this was mainly a victory on paper given that the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose Knesset representatives are chosen by rabbinical councils, still ban women in practice.

There have been other achievements, though. In the most recent election last March, for the first time ever, a relatively new ultra-Orthodox party – more moderate than both United Torah Judaism and Shas – put a woman in second place on its ticket. But Am Shalem, as the party is known, didn’t have enough votes to get into the Knesset.

In addition, for the first time in Israeli history, an ultra-Orthodox woman recently served in the cabinet. But this wasn’t exactly the victory these Haredi feminists had been praying for, considering that Omer Yankelevich, the Diaspora affairs minister in the last government, was a member of centrist Kahol Lavan rather than an ultra-Orthodox party.

The poster for “Women of Valor.”Illustration by Ruth GwilyCourtesy of Hot

Young rebel with a cause

Bitton Shushan, who grew up in the northern town of Safed and is now 44, began her rebellion relatively early in life. A child of immigrants from Morocco, she was among a handful of Mizrahi girls to be admitted to the prestigious Bais Yaakov high school in Bnei Brak (a large Haredi city bordering Tel Aviv). As she recounts in the film, her attempts to call out ethnic discrimination at the school were not well received. “My activism did not end well,” she says in the film. “My teacher called me a provocateur, and eventually I was ostracized.”

Her first marriage, at age 18, to a man she describes as abusive, ended in divorce a few months later. Out of fear that she might not get a second chance given the taboo of divorce in the Haredi world, she quickly remarried. That marriage lasted much longer, but eventually unraveled as well.

While she was having and raising her four children, Bitton Shushan started penning pieces for a Haredi publication under the pseudonym of “E. Shushan” – a way to circumvent its ban on publishing female writers.

As the years passed, so did her frustration with the inferior status of women in Haredi society. “We’re talking about 50 percent of the Haredi population, who have to constantly pretend that everything is fine with a smile on the face, a pot on the stove and a cake in the oven,” she says in the film. “But everything isn’t fine.”

A scene from “Women of Valor.”Anna Somershaf/Courtesy of Hot

And what was especially not fine, as far as she was concerned, was that ultra-Orthodox women had no one to advocate for them in the corridors of power: “We don’t even have a say in where a playground in the neighborhood is built, because women aren’t allowed to run for the municipal council.”

As internet access began to spread in Haredi society, Bitton Shushan realized she was not alone in her frustration. More and more ultra-Orthodox women, on various online forums she had joined, were voicing similar grievances. A few months before the 2013 Knesset election, she decided it was time to act and opened a Facebook page called “No Voice, No Vote.” Its purpose was to urge Haredim to boycott the ballot box unless the political parties representing them agreed to include women on their Knesset slates.

This Facebook page would eventually evolve into the Nivcharot movement, which is also active offline, preparing ultra-Orthodox women for the political arena. Thus far, more than 80 women have graduated from its leadership training program.

Nivcharot has taken its battle not only to the Supreme Court but also to the United Nations, where the “two Esties” – as they are known – recently appeared before the Commission on the Status of Women.

The typical response of mainstream Haredi society to this feminist revolt is to denounce the women behind it as “not really Haredi.” For many of them, nothing could be a greater insult.

What is “not really Haredi,” asks Bitton Shushan, about demanding female representation in politics?

A scene from “Women of Valor” in the Knesset. Emanuel Meyer/Courtesy of Hot

“You’d think that we had said there was no God,” she exclaims. “But our struggle has nothing at all to do with halakha [Jewish religious law]. It’s about breaking a bad habit.”

Bitton Shushan is often asked whether it wouldn’t be easier for her to break with Haredi society and find a religious home elsewhere. That would be playing into the hands of her detractors, she argues in response. “I am Haredi. That is my identity,” she says in the film. “If I have criticism, that doesn’t mean I need to migrate to a different culture. It means I need to stay where I am and plan changes from within.”

The title of the film draws its inspiration from a poem in the Book of Proverbs, recited in many Jewish homes before Shabbat dinner. It begins with the following verse: “A woman of valor, who can find?”

Bitton Shushan answers the question in the film with her own twist. “They are always looking for her but never find her,” she says. “They sing songs of praise for her, but nobody knows what she really thinks.”

That is starting to change – thanks in no small part to the movement this unconventional Haredi woman helped create.

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