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The right and wrong thing — at the same time

Pnina Pfeuffer looks at the challenge confronting Charedi feminists.

    Ultra-Orthodox women working in the Malam Group IT company in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit. (Photo: Flash90)
    Ultra-Orthodox women working in the Malam Group IT company in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit. (Photo: Flash90)

    The media exposés of the treatment of women over the past six months have created new openings for Western societies to examine and improve themselves. Israel is no exception.

    In fact, it has been one step ahead of its European and American counterparts. The Women’s Journalist Caucus first exposed sexual harassment cases among top Israeli media personalities as far back in 2012. Since then, new trends of feminism have increasingly emerged from surprising quarters. One of those is the Charedi community.

    What makes a Charedi feminist from Israel more unusual than, say, an Orthodox Feminist, who also comes from a more traditional society, where everything changes slowly, people are wary of change, and the traditional family is more prevalent as a model to aspire to?

    Charedi women have to be breadwinners because a large percentage of Charedi men don’t work. Yet, still, there is a conflicting message for working Charedi women: you are doing the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time. This is the challenge confronting Charedi feminists.

    We’re fighting battles that in the Western world that are very old. The right for women to be elected — I don’t think that any other Western society still has that as an issue. The ideology of the family is very sensitive, and there’s a lot of work to be done there. There is also a religious issue and the question of where the boundaries lie. The minute that secular feminism touches on something religious, seemingly religious, or just close to being religious, things get very sensitive.

    Women within the community know what those obstacles are. They can decide when they are ready to tackle them. If you’re from the outside, you won’t have that sensitivity; you won’t know why something you said is OK or outrageous.

    In Charedi society, you have an “elite” who will find a way to get a good education for their women. Somehow, they are allowed a pass and go to university, but they won’t allow it for the majority. They ensure that most women are left behind with very low salaries and few options.

    Despite this, Charedi women and men, especially those aged between 20 and 40, are coming together to open up decision-making and achieve a wider distribution of power.

    Charedi society, which is now 800,000 members strong, isn’t as centralised as it was. People have moved out of the heartlands because of expensive housing. Among those aged 20 to 40, more-and-more are receiving an education and getting jobs. If, once upon a time, the people who had power were the rabbinical authorities and the people close to them, today there are also lawyers and other professionals who have a standing in the community. They can now make a big impact, much more so than before.

    The main political parties also have Charedi members now, and even though the numbers are small, they have an impact. People in the community are saying: “OK we don’t have to vote for the Charedi parties, we can vote for other parties”. Even if we don’t vote differently, we can seek a different style of political organisation for ourselves. All this is still in the infant stage, but if you look 20 years ahead, it will make for a big change.

    Social media is being used by a new set of Strictly Orthodox social activists to engage their community in the online discussion of previously hushed-up topics. In Charedi society, the big advantage is that there is no regulator. Traditional Charedi media is very closed and everything is vetted.

    The internet is different. It enables people to use pseudonyms so that they are not identifiable. A lot of people start on Facebook anonymously and transition to being open about their identity. For many Charedi groups, it’s new and amazing to be able to speak your mind and meet new people. It’s something we didn’t have in our world, and now we have it, so we use it more than most people.

    Ultimately, though, there is Charedi feminism because there are Charedi feminists. Its effects are only starting to be seen.


    Pnina Pfeuffer is a leading figure in Charedi feminism and outreach co-ordinator to the Strictly Orthodox community for Darkenu. The full version of her article has been published in the latest edition of BICOM’s Fathom Journal, Feminism in Israel at www.fathomjournal.org