By Samira Kanji, Azeezah Kanji, Dr Barbara Landau, and Dr Karen Mock
One weekend every November, Jewish and Muslim communities around the world get together to build connections of understanding and friendship: this is the annual Weekend of Twinning of Synagogues and Mosques, brainchild of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in New York.
This year, we marked the sixth birthday of the Muslim-Jewish twins in Toronto with a movie night and a women’s religious text study session.
On the Saturday of the Twinning, members of Jewish and Muslim communities in the city gathered to watch Arranged, a beautiful tale of unlikely friendship based on a true story. Rochel – an Orthodox Jewish woman – and Nasira – a conservative Muslim woman – meet as new teachers in a Brooklyn public school. Both are in the process of having their marriages arranged (or more accurately, both are in the process of being introduced to potential partners by family and community members). The similar landscapes of their journeys to betrothal, and their shared experiences as religiously devout women in a secular environment, bring Nasira and Rochel together.
As Jews and Muslims living in Toronto, we constantly encounter the diversity of religious beliefs and practices within our respective traditions, as well as the diversity between them. Such encounters with difference (internal as much as external) may be deeply challenging and yet profoundly enriching. Watching Arranged together helped bridge schisms across both inter-faith and intra-faith lines of division – between Jewish and Muslim, conservative and liberal, orthodox and reform – bringing into focus the humanity of those on the other(ed) side of the divide.
Arranged is also one of relatively few movies that passes the Bechdel test, a three-part heuristic for gauging a film’s representation of women’s stories and perspectives: 1) the film has at least two women in it; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something other than a man. The test has recently been adopted by cinemas in Sweden to assign films a “feminist rating.” (And apparently, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, every Star Wars movie, and all but one of the Harry Potter films fail.)
It may seem counterintuitive to describe Arranged as a feminist film, given the popular portrayal of religion as an utterly and irredeemably patriarchal force. Religious women are frequently represented as deluded by some figment of “false consciousness,” generated by their internalization of perniciously patriarchal norms. The figure of the oppressed religious woman haunts recent arguments supporting Quebec’s proposed charter of values, with the charter’s restrictions on religious veiling imagined as freeing (if not saving) Muslim women.
Arranged disrupts the all-too-common-but-simplistic narrative that women’s empowerment necessarily lies in liberation from the shackles of religion. Many women undoubtedly experience religion as an oppressive imposition. For many others like Rochel and Nasira, however, religion is an important source of selfhood and belonging, of meaning and guidance. The film beautifully shows how these protagonists navigate multiple systems of norms – family expectations, culture and tradition, religion, liberal feminism, secularism – as they chart the courses of their futures. As Rochel responds to the school’s avowedly feminist (and aggressively secularist) principal when queried about her embrace of “superstitious nonsense” (that is, tradition): “I have a choice . . . It’s different, yes, but I have a say.”
The women’s text study on Twinning Weekend Sunday was one instance of Muslim and Jewish women “having their say.” Guided by Dr Shari Golberg, participants discussed and (re)interpreted the story of Sarah and Hagar (the wives of the prophet Abraham and the mothers of Isaac and Ishmael, respectively), as recounted in Jewish and Islamic texts. Such sessions are sites for women’s efforts to grapple with religious traditions, rather than simply discard or sidestep them – to actively participate in that most fundamental of religious activities, interpretation of scripture. Patriarchal or androcentric readings are questioned, while the text itself retains its importance and value.
In truth, we are all shaped and limited by a multitude of influences we don’t necessarily choose, or even consciously perceive: the values of our families and religious communities; societal norms of gender and morality; state laws; popular media; advertising. None of us exercises choice wholly free of structures of conditioning and constraint. The value of activities like the Twinning lies in their ability to illuminate the ubiquity of agency and the commonality of our struggles, diffracted through the prism of our differences.
Samira Kanji and Azeezah Kanji are with Noor Cultural Centre (www.noorculturalcentre.ca), which has been “twinning” with Temple Emanu-El since 2008. Barbara Landau and Karen Mock represent the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (www.cajmcanada.org), which organizes the Weekend of Twinning in Canada. This year’s Twinning occurred on November 16 and 17.
Participants in the Toronto women’s twinning event