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Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right. By Lihi Ben Shitrit

Oxford Journals
Arts & Humanities & Law & Social Sciences
Journal of Church and State
Volume 58, Issue 4
Pp. 761-764.
Book review, by Anissa Hélie
Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and
Palestinian Religious Right. By Lihi Ben Shitrit
Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious
Right. By Lihi Ben Shitrit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 239pp. $22.95 paper.
1. Anissa Hélie
+ Author Affiliations
1. John Jay College New York, New York
This book has been debated in Palestine and Israel, the focal region of Lihi Ben Shitrit’s
research. Criticism centers on the author’s attempt to analyze two “sides” of the main politico-
religious extremes: Jews and Muslims embracing ideologies of the religious right. Such criticism
arises, in part, because no one wishes to be compared to the “menacing ‘Other’” (p. 227) and
especially, for Palestinians and their allies, to a disproportionately dominant other. But Ben
Shitrit points out that these sides have widely different access to power, and her comparative
approach is justified given that politico-religious groups of various creeds share key ideological
commitments, including a rejection of gender equality (or, as per their lexicon, the promotion of
a “gender complementarity model” [p. 130]).
Focusing on the four most influential groups Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the Ultra-
Orthodox Shas, the Islamist movement in Israel, and Hamas militants Ben Shitrit specifically
examines the role played by women who “actively advocate formal political agendas grounded
in patriarchal religious interpretations” (p. 6). This emphasis on women’s ultra-conservative
activism and particularly the issue of women’s agency where “tensions [exist] between
ideological commitments and actual performance” (p. 33) is relevant and timely, offering a
welcome addition to the existing literature.
Notably, Ben Shitrit did not have equal access to all of her anthropological data: during her two
years of fieldwork, she could not interview women from Hamas, relying instead on secondary
literature. However, this asymmetry, which she acknowledges, does not diminish the relevance
of the questions at the heart of this carefully researched book: “What are the politics and
mechanisms of women’s efforts to advance socially conservative religious objectives? And
what are the consequences of their activism for their movement, for the activists themselves and
for women in general?” (pp. 4-5). Is their work “ultimately conservative, as opposed to
transformative” (p. 227)?
Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the book has four sections, each articulating a facet
of the main inquiry, and each further divided in subsections devoted to one particular movement.
Chapter 2 provides historical background for each movement, its gender ideologies and relation
to feminism, stressing their similarities and differences. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on women’s
“complementarian activism” through their domestic, community, and religious engagements, and
consider women’s more transgressive protests, which he justified through “affectivity and
maternal credentials” (p. 128). Chapter 5 addresses women’s (dismal) formal representations in
the movements’ governance structures.
Showing that “women’s labor is essential to the very sustenance” of their movements (p. 80),
Ben Shitrit describes the strategies through which extremist women carve a space for themselves
within the confines of strict patriarchal parameters. She describes women’s endorsement of
various forms of gendered control, while demonstrating “how women who do subscribe to the
nonegalitarian gender doctrines of their religious-political movements, and vehemently reject a
discourse of feminist resistance, nevertheless engage in forms of political activism that transgress
(rather than adhere to) the roles assigned to them by these same doctrines” (p. 16).
Distinguishing between the four groups’ “proselytizing and nationalist commitments” (p. 78),
Ben Shitrit demonstrates that women in the two nationalist-oriented groups the settler
movement and Hamas participate in more transgressive forms of activism (e.g., “unruly”
public confrontations). Crucial here are the frames of exception, whereby the “concern with a
nationalist or communalist agenda provides women and movements with discursive tools to
create … motivational frames that justify an exceptional, temporary, and out-of-the-ordinary
transgression of gender ideology for the sake of a more urgent cause” (p. 181). In contrast,
women’s involvement in the proselyting-focused Shas and Islamic movement adheres better to
their movements’ restrictive gender ideologies. Yet Ben Shitrit also finds that “paradoxically, it
was the two proselytizing movements that offered women powerful liberatory narratives” (p.
228) but, crucially, she warns that these “should not be confused with a feminist
consciousness” (p. 238).
Still, Ben Shitrit could have engaged in more complex theorizing of women’s agency. Adopting
Saba Mahmood’s rejection to equate agency with emancipation, she mostly addresses individual
agency. She could have discussed further how women’s participation in those movements affects
collective empowerment for women. Hence, I suggest caution regarding Ben Shitrit’s hope that
“transgression of complementarian gender roles could challenge socially conservative
religious-political movements’ underlying gender ideology” (p. 225). Extremist women remain
supporters of sexist, racist, authoritarian, exclusionary doctrines, and this reviewer is more
convinced by Ben Shitrit’s observation that “the well-being of the nation [is] the only
justification for women’s transgressions” (p. 228) and that, therefore, “righteous” transgressions
are only “a strategy for exceptional times that would and should be relinquished once normalcy
is achieved” (p. 130, emphasis original).
Notwithstanding, this is a well-written, insightful, and important contribution to the intersecting
fields of gender, religion, and politics. It should be read by all concerned with the study of
women and extremism, especially those interested in violent conflict and authoritarian ideology.
Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-
State Studies 2016. This work is written by a US Government employee and is in the
public domain in the US.
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1. J. of Church and State (Autumn 2016) 58 (4): 761-764. doi: 10.1093/jcs/csw091 First
published online: November 1, 2016
Online ISSN 2040-4867 - Print ISSN 0021-969X
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