Two faiths, two women and their friendship
Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. Her article is reproduced here with the permission of The Public Discourse.
“I heard that the Muslims want to kill all the Jews,” says a fourth-grade student to his Muslim teacher while an Orthodox Jewish teacher sits with them in the classroom. Just about any way one looks at this it sounds like a recipe for disaster.
And yet, by this point in the film Arrangedthe students’ Muslim teacher, Nasira, and the Orthodox Jewish special education teacher, Rochel, have begun to suspect that they may have morein common with each other as religious women than with anyone else in the secular environment of their Brooklyn public school.
The lunchtime chit-chat of the other female school teachers is about parties and sleeping with guys. Nasira and Rochel have, however, opted for a different approach to life. This means eating lunch alone instead—until they discover each other, that is.
There are those who would like to get Nasira and Rochel to abandon their “backward” ways. In the view of the school principal, for example,the religiosity and consequent modesty of Nasira and Rochel are outdated and irrational. At a workshop to instruct teachers about tolerance, the principal simply assumes and then goes on to tell the whole group that she thinks Nasira wears a headscarf because her father forces her to do so. Nasira, however, refuses to let this snide remark pass and shares with the group an eloquent explanation of her personal choice to follow her religious faith and how this informs her understanding of feminine modesty. She does so gracefully and confidently, not angrily or bitterly. This piques Rochel’s interest. Rochel discovers that Nasira too is facing the challenge of trying to fit in but not give in to the culture at their school.
Nasira’s explanation of why she chooses to wear the hijab does, however, not alleviate the principal’s crusade to ‘enlighten’ and ‘liberate’ Nasira and Rochel with her own brand of feminism.
The principal’s enthusiasm for diversity and tolerance wanes when it comes to the modest attire these young women have chosen out of their religious convictions. The principal considers these women among her twobest teachers in the school, but for her that’s not enough. She tells them, “You’re successful participants in the modern world, except for this religious thing. You know I mean—the rules, the regulations, the way you dress… I mean come on we’re in the 21st century here for crying out loud. There was a women’s movement!” Nasira and Rochel try to be polite, but clearly they feel more irritation than liberation at hearing this. The principal, on the other hand, is so flustered by Nasira and Rochel’s calm, confident disinterest in the type of free-for-all feminism she promotes that she finally resorts to offering them her own personal money for them to go out and buy some “designer” clothes as a replacement for “those farkakte outfits” (which seems to bea Yiddish nod, from the secular Jewish principal, to the line from the Blues Brothers, “What are you guys gonna do? The same act? Wearing the same farkakte suits?”). Nasira and Rochel decline and walk out of her office.
This is a delightful film with a positive, substantive message. It deserves more viewers than its somewhat confusing title might attract. Arranged,as in arranged marriage, conjures up for many images of child marriage and forced marriage. This film does not attempt to downplay the abusiveness of such practices. Rather, in this film the “arranging” of marriage refers to family engagement in the process of searching for a suitable spouse.
(In fact, it is worth noting that today there are devout Muslims and Jewsworking to protect women and men from potential abuses resulting from distorted concepts of marriage. For example, this Fall the Muslim chaplain at New York University, Imam Khalid Latif, devoted a Friday sermon to differentiating between marriage and forced marriage.)
Nasira and Rochel discover they are both exploring the possibility ofgetting married, and that both of them are from devout religious families with cultural traditions of parents’ involvement in suggesting and getting to know eligible bachelors.
At the same time, even with a role for their families in seeking a suitable spouse, each woman has veto authority over any of the proposed suitors. And they exercise it.
But when Rochel spots a handsome, single Orthodox Jewish student withkind, bright eyes in a university study group with Nasira’s brother, some dreaming and scheming ensue. The most helpful person along the way proves to be her Muslim friend Nasira, who comes up with a humorous ployto bring him to the attention of the women helping Rochel find a husband.
In a day and age in America when public discussion of marriage tends to be limited to either vicious fighting or depressing divorce statistics, Arranged provides a welcome respite from this. The film offers instead a focus on the centrality of relationship, commitment, and family in marriage.
This story—devout Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women discovering commonground in valuing feminine dignity and family—is not just some fictional tale of unrealistic wishful-thinking. Arranged is based on the real life account of an Orthodox Jewish woman, a teacher inthe New York public schools, and her experiences getting to know the Pakistani-American Muslim mother of one of her pupils.
These filmmakers are not naïve. As one of them explains in an interview about the making of the film, included on the DVD, Israel and Lebanon were at war during the shooting of this movie. Challenges aboundand they are very real. And in the film Nasira and Rochel have to maneuver their budding friendship through the obstacles of family members’ skepticism and even opposition to their Muslim-Jewish friendship. But even so, real friendships are also possible, and alliances to protect religious freedom can cross unexpected lines.
(For example, in Montreal the Orthodox Jewish community is fighting against a bill which would ban the Muslim facial veil, niqab,in Quebec for women seeking government services. The Orthodox Jewish community there has expressed concern about the government trying to regulate the attire of religious believers and doing so by targeting oneminority.)
Shared values provide a bridge for Nasira and Rochel. They are women with humble self-dignity in a world not disposed to support integrity orfamily. What these women learn is that kindness begets friendship, and genuine friendship can handle differences. They don’t have to deny theirdifference to get along. The bridge they build proves to be stronger than cross-currents around them. Friendship, and healthy relationships, ensue and grow.
Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.
Copyright 2010 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.