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Religion Prof Narrates ‘Faith’

By Jessica A. Berger, Contributing Writer

People of faith are often challenged to reconcile religious traditionalism with a desire for progressive action and modernism: Catholics who disagree with the encyclicals of the pope or Muslims who reject fundamentalist action are currently among the more prominent examples.

To this end, at the opening of “Acting on Faith: Women and the New Religious Activism in America,” the voice of Pluralism Project Director Dr. Diana Eck—who is also a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society and co-master of Lowell House—gives the audience the reassuring mantra, “No one should have to choose between multiple and vital identities.”

During an April 26 screening, the film’s viewers, spanning a broad spectrum of races, religions, and social agendas, were encouraged to embrace all of their identities in watching the Pluralism Project’s new documentary, “Acting on Faith,” directed by Rachel Antell, who received her MTS from Harvard Divinity School in 1992.

The event featured a screening of the 42-minute long documentary, as well as a question and answer session with Eck, Antell, and the three women featured in the film: Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a Muslim, Dr. Shamita Das Dasgupta, a Hindu, and Mushim Ikeda-Nash, a Buddhist.

The film, says Antell, means to “highlight some of the newer minority religions in the U.S.,” and therefore does not feature members of the Jewish or Christian faiths. Rather, the film explores the Eastern traditions of Hinduism, Islam, and Zen Buddhism, and the ways in which the three featured women use religious activism to help women grow as spiritual beings, family members and community members, noting that these roles should not be mutually exclusive.

Eck was asked by Antell to narrate this film. Additionally, Eck connected Antell with Al-Marayita and Das Dasgupta, active members of the Pluralism Project’s women’s networks conferences.

Eck says in an e-mail that she thinks “film is an essential medium for communicating important ethical and religious ideas precisely because it is personal and up-close. It enables us to see and hear the thinking, the wrestling, even the doubts, that go into a complex faith and a commitment to public service.”

One of these significant struggles the film addresses is domestic violence against women, especially their vulnerability within their families and religious communities. Eck points out that “we understand that being ‘Hindu’ may involve a strong critique of Hindu institutions, and yet a sense that religion is very important to the women who come to Manushi [Mushim’s Buddhist women’s network] with issues of domestic abuse.”

Mushim echoed this sentiment and said after the screening, “It is possible to critique one’s faith when one’s life is an expression of that faith.”

In terms of effecting change and communication, Eck believes “the dialogue was very productive, and revealing. Especially the comments from Shamita and Laila on the continuing difficulties they and their communities have faced in the aftermath of 9/11—trying to provide services and at the same time to deal with an extraordinary level of government surveillance and suspicion.”

“Acting on Faith” is endorsed by Eck’s Pluralism Project, an organization that devotes itself to the impact of changing immigration demographics—specifically the growth of Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern populations in the United States—on the cultural and religious lives of Americans.

Though the mission of “Acting on Faith” is to explore “voices that many people hadn’t heard,” according to Antell, “no one represents anything other than themselves.” The film, therefore, is not intended to be “comprehensive or representative” of entire communities of women or faiths.

According to the Pluralism Project website, www.pluralism.org primary distribution of the film will be aimed at classroom use for high school and college courses in Religious Studies and Women’s Studies. Wide release has yet to be determined.

Eck says she “started the Pluralism Project in order to extend [her] work and research on contemporary forms of religion into the United States, rather than just in India for Hinduism and Islam.” Recently, her studies have included understanding the lives and cultures of “the second generation of the post-1965 immigration, who came to college at Harvard [in the early 1990s].”

Since then, the Pluralism Project has developed a CD-ROM, also narrated by Eck, and has coordinated several conferences to explore the roles of women in their newly developed religious communities. As for artistic expression of religious issues, the Project has sponsored photography exhibits of religious life and recently issued a “grant toward the production of a film called ‘New York Slaughterhouse’ that focuses on a slaughterhouse in NYC used by three religious communities,” Eck writes.

The dialogue between the three women pictured and audience members has greatly inspired Eck’s and the Pluralism Project’s future research. Eck continues, “Listening carefully to the voices of women from America’s new religious and cultural minorities provides an essential perspective on the well-being of America in general. How are ‘we the people’ doing with the great experiment of democratic pluralism? These women really help us to see.”

For the Harvard community in particular, the film may greatly contribute to students’ understanding of the “explicitly religious voices of these communities, especially women,” Eck writes. “Students yearn to see and hear real people struggling with issues of faith and service. Identity is a complex thing, with many overlapping ‘we’s’—racial, social, religious, cultural. No simple idea of what being a ‘Muslim woman’ might mean can substitute for making [Al-Marayati’s] acquaintance and hearing her voice on film.”

—Kristina M. Moore contributed to the reporting of this article.

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