Esty Shushan has come a long way to find her own voice and independence. With her organisation Nivcharot, the first and only ultra-orthodox feminist organisation in Israel, she claims rights that have long been trampled. ‘Having criticism doesn’t mean I have to leave my culture,’ she says. ‘It means I have to stay and try to fix it.’
As a child, Esty Shushan was interested in learning the Talmud. So she started reading it one day with her father, a rabbi. After a while, however, her father closed the book. ‘Too bad you’re not a boy,’ he said.
It is a poignant memory that Esty Shushan shares in the documentary Women of Valor, which follows her and her fellow activists at work. Women and girls should not be taught the Talmud, Shushan explains: ‘There’s a quote from the Talmud: “Anyone who teaches his daughter the Torah, teaches her obscenity.”’
It’s this kind of curtailment of women in the Haredi (‘ultra-orthodox’) community that she grew up in, that Esty Shushan has been opposing for years. A bit subdued at first, writing articles under a male pseudonym. ‘Until I was fed-up,’ she says. Reading online Haredi forums, where for the first time women talked (anonymously) about their problems and pain, Shushan began feeling the need to speak out.
Before the elections of 2012, she thought: ‘Another election, why does nobody speak to us? I couldn’t stay silent anymore.’ So she started a Facebook page called ‘No Voice – No Vote!’ It called on people not to vote for parties that did not allow women in their ranks. ‘Haredi leaders must realize: changes are in the wind,’ Shushan said in an interview. ‘They can tell us to go to other, non-Haredi, parties, accuse us of not being “true” Haredi women. But the Haredi world is our world, and the Haredi parties are our political home.’
Out of the Facebook group emerged Nivcharot (Hebrew for ‘elected’), Israel’s only Haredi feminist organisation. Nivcharot promotes the inclusion of ultra-orthodox women in the political process. ‘One of the things that helped me minimize my pain and anger toward my community, is my activism,’ Shushan says. ‘I want to fix things so that girls and women have more opportunities. That they have role models and a chance to impact their lives.’
Women of Valor is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2022, where Esty Shushan is a special guest.