Abstract: Ultra-Orthodox Lesbian Women in Israel: Family Structures As a Bridge between Religious and Sexual Identities (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Ultra-Orthodox Lesbian Women in Israel: Family Structures As a Bridge between Religious and Sexual Identities

Friday, January 13, 2023
Valley of the Sun A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Ayelet Oreg, PhD, Lecturer, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Background and Purpose: The Jewish Ultra-Orthodox community enforces strict rules concerning members’ way of life and there is little tolerance for deviations. Conforming to these rules, however, is not so simple for Ultra-Orthodox women who identify as lesbians. These women experience a conflict between their religious and sexual identities, making the Ultra-Orthodox way of life seem unattainable. In this study, we sought to uncover the means through which such women nevertheless achieve such a way of life. We base our study on the theory of social representation and examine the unique family structures that lesbian Ultra-Orthodox women take on to accommodate their conflicted identities.

Methods: Our exploration was guided by a central question: What is the personal, spousal, familial, and community life experience of Ultra-Orthodox lesbian women in Israel? We wanted to learn about these women’s experiences directly, but given that being a lesbian is not socially acceptable in the Ultra-Orthodox community, it was particularly challenging finding participants for our study. We managed to reach seven families with whom we undertook a qualitative, phenomenological, multiple case study approach (Stake, 2006) and conducted in-depth interviews with each of the women.

Results: Alongside unique aspects of each family’s situation and experiences, the families in our sample also share similar life experiences, in which the women struggle to maintain their Ultra-Orthodox way of life, while remaining true to their lesbian identity. The women in our study cannot imagine life outside the Ultra-Orthodox community. They dare not expose their sexual identity, so as not to hamper their children’s chances of finding a spouse (“shiduch”, a Jewish matchmaking procedure). This puts them in a state of identity conflict. Yet whereas the religious identity is visible and exposed, their sexual one is concealed. The solutions these women came up with to accommodate their two identities are in the form of alternative family structures. We identified two structures: One involves women who remained married, thus outwardly preserving their family unit, and at the same time maintaining a second, clandestine, relationship with a woman. Another structure involved women who divorced and maintain their lesbian relationship, still in secret. In both structures, the women kept their sexual identity in secret from their children and extended families, and in some cases even from their husband. These solutions come at significant emotional costs, for both the women and their families.

Conclusions and Implications: 1) Our findings extend the theory of social representation and promote an understanding of the multifaceted identity of Ultra-Orthodox lesbian women. 2) We show how alternative family structures allow for the accommodation of conflicting identities. 3) Our study broadens the discussion of the silencing that takes place in the Ultra-Orthodox community, which to this point has focused on the silencing of sexual abuse and domestic violence. We highlight its role with respect to community members’ lesbian identity. From a practical perspective, our findings are informative for intervening professionals who can gain from awareness to the complexities involved in these women’s and their families’ lives.