Little is known about the relationship between the construction of women activists’ sociopolitical identity and their life stories. This study examines how religious women’s personal narratives have shaped their lives as activists. To do so, we have interviewed Jewish Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women living in Israel, who are active in their communities on issues that are important to them personally and socially, such as women’s exploitation in the job market, preventing prostitution, and the promotion of healthy sexuality. By studying these stories as they present them, we try to identify factors in women’s lives that lead them to devote their lives to activism and to understand the extent to which these women’s stories and their childhood and maturation experiences have shaped their activist identity.
This qualitative study is informed by a critical feminist approach that considers the participants’ discourse as a major source of information The research is based on the life stories of 14 religious activist women in Israel. The data were collected by semi-structured in-depth interviews.
Analysis of the findings indicate that personal or social events perceived as significant in the women’s lives as children and adolescents acted as catalysts for activism. These events were central to their personal narratives and became embedded in the women’s activist identity, as they came to perceive activism as the most “natural” response to life challenges. Specifically, two types of events were identified: events in the individual-family-community sphere, and events in the public-national sphere. They affected the interviewees and led them to act, whether out of antagonism and anger at a perceived injustice, or out of a sense of power and constructive thought.
Conclusions and Implications:
The findings emphasize the personal-political nexus and provide insight into the activists’ motives for fighting for their values and for committing to long-term activity in the public sphere – despite considerable personal costs. This study contributes to the literature by highlighting the new and unique phenomenon of religious women who, despite being educated to accept and comply with the conventions of a patriarchal society choose to make their voice heard and lead sociocultural changes in public space. This can help understand how communities change, as activists have the power to affect their community directly through their work, as well as indirectly as models and mentors for others. The present study also adds relevant theoretical and updated knowledge, which relates to the field of community work with activists and highlights the need to work from a critical feminist perspective. Regard to policy, the research highlights the need to invest in community work that is compatible with and sensitive to the needs and characteristics of women activists in general and religious activist women in particular, such as courses in community work with minorities and training of community social workers employed in NGO's which deal with human rights and advocacy.