Revolution within the haredi sector? Ultra-orthodox women on Instagram

‘WITH THE onset of social media, controlling a newspaper no longer ensures control over [haredi] public opinion.’
(photo credit: INSTAGRAM)

In contrast with haredi women who are unusually interested in getting their name out on Instagram, haredi men who view themselves as key opinion leaders tend to focus their efforts on Twitter.

You can see them everywhere these days, dressed meticulously and modestly, as they quietly lead a revolution within the haredi sector. The general haredi community has gone to great efforts to ignore their presence, and they are not spoken of in yeshivas and in conservative circles, but underneath the surface, huge waves of change have begun rolling in. Who are these people? None other than the haredi Instagram women.
In contrast with these haredi women who are unusually interested in getting their name out on Instagram, haredi men who view themselves as key opinion leaders tend to focus their efforts on Twitter, instead, and show very little interest in Instagram. The men consider Twitter to be a respectable masculine territory. In recent years, the active posting by haredi women on social media has become the basis for many a headache for veteran haredi politicians who’d become accustomed to controlling party newspapers, which they use to convey messages to the haredi public. But with the onset of social media, this monopoly has come crashing down and controlling a newspaper no longer ensures control over public opinion.
“The best case in point of this phenomenon is the most recent municipal elections in Jerusalem,” explains a well-known Haredi PR man, “which ended with the spectacular loss for the haredi parties. Politicians from Agudat Yisrael were sure that Yossi Deutsch would win the mayoral election, since he’d been backed by the party’s newspaper, but apparently haredi voters have ceased relying on the paper to help them make their decisions. This led to the success of Moshe Lion. They learned the hard way.”
WHILE SOCIAL networking among haredi men is mostly a tool used for internal politics, among female members of the community, social networking is mostly used by fashionistas and culinary artists, as well as activists trying to promote moderate feminist matters.
“In the past, barely any haredi women dared to publicize ideas or interests openly on social networking,” says Chani Vainberger, a makeup and fashion trendsetter who has over 24,000 followers on Instagram. “Nowadays, I can think of at least 30 haredi women who have large followings on Instagram. I see them at almost every product launching, conference and evening promotional workshop.”
According to Vainberger, however, the Israeli PR industry treats haredi industry leaders with a certain disdain, claiming that 30,000 followers is just small change.
“This disdain is reflected in the extremely low amounts of money offered to haredi women for promoting or advertising products or services on their Instagram page, or for attending launchings. I’ll never forget one launching event I attended to promote a well-known vacuum cleaner company. The secular Israeli women were paid nicely for attending and also went home with a new vacuum cleaner as a gift. In contrast, haredi women were handed a gift bag from Laline. It was incredibly humiliating.”
“Instagram has slowly been gaining popularity in the haredi world, and has recently gained a tremendous amount of momentum,” says Oshrat Eitan, a rising fashion star of the haredi world, who has close to 10,000 Instagram followers. “Awareness is quickly growing, and advertisers are finally realizing that this is a worthwhile sector to invest in. The biggest difference between secular/traditional and religious/haredi female bloggers, besides the obvious ones of religious restrictions regarding modest dress, Shabbat, and keeping kosher, is the low number of followers.
“Because the number of Instagram users among religious and haredi women is much lower than among secular and traditional users,” continues Eitan, “the number of followers from the former is also naturally lower. But this relatively small number of users is still considered excellent exposure for haredi bloggers. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult for them to hire PR firms to represent them since they assume that they will have very little influence due to their reduced numbers of users.”
“I was invited by a PR firm along with other fashion industry leaders on a fully-expense paid trip to Cyprus,” adds Vainberger. “On the flight over, as I was schmoozing with other Israeli colleagues, it became apparent that some of them had actually been paid to participate in this trip. And when I investigated which type of vouchers we’d been given, it became clear that some of the women were being pampered much more than others. I’ve encountered this type of obvious discrimination time and again.”
CHANI VAINBERGER, in Instagram parlance, ‘serving lewks (looks),’ as seen on her page (Credit: INSTAGRAM)
PR EXECUTIVES describe the difficulties of working with haredi social network front-runners. “In addition to the limitations we have to deal with regarding modest dress and Shabbat observance,” explains one executive, “haredi women have less experience with the traditional way business on the Internet is carried out and are not as willing to receive products in exchange for advertising on their pages. When a client wants to receive exposure for suitcases, it’s much easier to persuade a popular singer with hundreds of thousands of followers to upload pictures of products on her personal page, than to convince a haredi woman with only 20,000 followers. The latter usually want money instead – and lots of it.”
“I’ve been active in this industry for three years already,” Vainberger says, in response. “When I was approached by a clothing store and asked if I was interested in receiving one of their dresses and some children’s clothing in exchange for posting these items on my Instagram page, I of course agreed. Afterwards, I saw that dozens of other women bought the exact same dress after seeing me wearing it. In other words, they made lots of money because of me. Once I realized this, I decided that there was no reason they shouldn’t pay me to wear their clothing. If we were talking about an advertisement in a newspaper, nobody would expect the model to accept a few free yogurts in lieu of payment.”
“In recent years, there’s been increased awareness on social networking of the religious and haredi sectors,” says Eitan. “There have also been joint ventures between a number of large fashion and makeup brands and haredi social networking leaders, as the industry is slowly coming to accept that the haredi community constitutes a serious niche of the Israeli market. At the same time, haredi bloggers have to work twice as hard as their secular counterparts. Haredi women need to adapt brands so that they can be acceptable in the haredi community. Clothing items need to be shown in the most chic way possible while still remaining modest.”
“These fashion leaders work very hard, and so of course they should be compensated financially,” continues Eitan. “Maintaining an Instagram page requires an incredible amount of work. I’ve turned down a number of requests to participate in advertising campaigns, since I didn’t think they were right for my followers.”
Vainberger agrees with the sentiment. “If I’m requested to show a certain product on my page that I need and that I believe will benefit me, then I’ll post pictures of it. Some women make all their purchases through social media. There’s no doubt that the Internet has tremendous strength – much more than most people in the Haredi community understand. I cannot tell you how many times women from the most extreme haredi sects have approached me on the street and told me they purchased a specific product after I recommended it on Instagram. Sometimes even I am surprised by the incredible power of the Internet.”
NOWADAYS, HAREDI advertising and PR agencies invite female haredi social networking trendsetters to every important event. Thousands of haredi women attended a recent fashion event called We Women, which took place at the Tel Aviv Convention Fairgrounds. This event, the first event of its kind to take place, attests more than anything else to the changes taking place in the worldview of haredi women. In addition, many haredi newspapers have also begun promoting women and have begun organizing conferences geared toward the professional haredi woman. All the haredi Instagram women can of course be found at each event.
“Fashion was always an important part of the haredi world – even before the advent of the Internet and social networking,” continues Eitan. “There are certain lines that are unique to the haredi community, whereas other fashion lines are adapted to fit our lifestyle. In my opinion, these changes actually improve the clothes and make them look more sophisticated.”
“I receive lots of feedback from secular Israelis, who love that I’m able to make dressing modest look chic, that it made them want to dress more modestly. Last year, I posted photos of the work of a non-haredi cosmetician on my Instagram page. Not long afterwards, the cosmetician wrote to tell me that she had been flown to the US by 10 women from one of the most extreme haredi American communities so that she could offer them treatments. That just goes to show how powerful social networking sites are.”
“There is still so much room for increased involvement of the haredi community in the world of social networking,” claims Eitan, “and this is bound to alter our world for the better. Social networking has made fashion more accessible for our community. Haredi women bloggers are such an inspiration for their followers. They teach them all about the world of fashion and explain to them how to use clothing as a means to achieve a certain look and to make them look more fashionable.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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