"Acting on Faith" is a new independent film that explores the convergent paths of three female activists from three different religions who are spearheading social change and grassroots activism. Second of five articles on women and religion.

Shamita Das Dasgupta

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–She is a mother, a wife and a physician in Southern California. Dr. Laila Al-Marayati is also a devout Muslim.

"As a mom, a doctor and in my marriage, it permeates everything I do," she said of the religion she embraced as a teenager.

Al-Marayati is also an activist, as much in her faith as in her profession.

Organizers of the Harvard University-based Pluralism Project, which documents this country’s changing religious landscape, believe Al-Marayati represents a growing, grass-roots activism led by women who seek to enact social change and who carry their deep faith into every aspect of their lives. Although there is no way to quantify the increased involvement, the Harvard scholars say more and more women are combining faith and activism, all over the world.

Rachel Antell, an independent producer who featured Al-Marayati and female activists from two other religions in a new film called "Acting on Faith: Women and the New Religious Activism in America" agrees.

"Pluralism is diversity, plus conversation," Antell said when her film was screened here recently before a crowd that packed a Harvard University auditorium. "Any time you can take a stance of advocacy for a community and then go outside yourself, you are an activist. That is what this film is about; activism and pluralism, and how women fit into both."

Muslim Women’s Leader

Al-Maryati, for example, is the spokesperson and past president of the Muslim Women’s League, an organization in Los Angeles that is dedicated to strengthening the role of Muslim women in society.

She has written articles and speaks out frequently on issues such as women’s rights in Islam, reproductive health and sexuality, ethnic and religious stereotyping and Palestinian rights. She is developing a middle school curriculum that will approach human sexuality from an Islamic perspective. She also volunteers as an obstetrician-gynecologist at the country’s first Muslim free clinic, located in South Central Los Angeles.

Al-Marayati led the Muslim Women’s League’s efforts on behalf of rape survivors from the war in Bosnia and was a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

She is also a careful observer of how U.S. Muslims are adapting their religious practices to the culture around them. She does not cover her hair and sends her three children to a school where headwear for girls is optional. She noted that when her sons invited friends from their Muslim school to a sleepover not long ago, "before they ate, they all prayed the sunset prayer together." When she was a child, she said, "that never would have happened."

The sunset prayer is part of the Muslim daily ritual; Al-Maryati said that when she was young, most children did not feel comfortable displaying their religious practices, even if they shared the same faith.

Her passionate involvement in causes connected to her faith made her an alluring profile subject for Antell. Working with the Pluralism Project–and with a shoestring budget of $30,000–the filmmaker said her goal was to examine the compatibility of feminism and religion, and to look at the distinct, yet convergent, paths of female activists in three different religions.

She said she carefully chose the three faiths featured in the film because "I wanted to bring forward or highlight some of the newer religions in the United States. It was a real struggle and my final decision was not to include any Christians or Jews."

Defending South Asian Immigrant Women

Along with Al-Marayati, the film focuses on Shamita Das Dasgupta, cofounder of Manavi, Inc., a nonprofit organization in New Brunswick, N.J., that seeks to end violence against South Asian immigrant women.

Das Dasgupta, who is also an adjunct professor of law at New York University, uses female figures in Hindu myth to encourage South Asian women to leave abusive husbands and boyfriends.

For years as she worked on behalf of battered women, Das Dasgupta said she encountered nothing but opposition from religious leaders in the United States representing her own culture.

"Violence against women, that was not okay to talk about in the South Asian community," she said. "We were vilified," she said, referring to women in the Hindu community. "Most of the religious institutions in New Jersey were not for us. They would not allow us to talk about what was happening to these women." The name Manavi, she explained, translates to "Primal Woman."

The third subject of the film, Mushim Ikeda-Nash, left a Buddhist monastery when, as she said playfully in the film, she "inexplicably" found herself pregnant. She continued her observance of what she calls "socially engaged Buddhism" as she raised her son, now a teenager, in Oakland, Calif.

Ikeda-Nash is a peace activist and diversity consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Her spiritual practice infuses her work in the community and also helps keep her balanced, Ikeda-Nash said. Since many women have overly crowded lives before they commit to work aimed at social transformation, she advises activists "to take a vow not to burn out. In work like this, as activists, we are always battling against time. It seems like there is never enough time."

Mushim Ikeda-Nash

But even as she works to increase the influence of women in lay and clerical positions in U.S. Buddhism Ikeda-Nash finds time to maintain her sense of humor. She recalled spending time at a Buddhist retreat in California soon after her son was born. While meditating, she realized that her lactating breasts were distracting her from profound thoughts. As soon as the meditation period was over, she raced to take a hot shower and express the milk.

"As far as I know," she quipped, "no Zen patriarch has ever had precisely this kind of experience."

As founder of the Pluralism Project and narrator of the new film, Dr. Diana L. Eck noted that this film about activist women and religious pluralism was making its debut just days after the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, an anti-pluralist.

Forefront of Interfaith Dialogue

Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard, said that in some ways the Vatican’s views on this subject did not matter. Regardless of what the pope does or says, Eck said, "Women are sort of at the forefront of inter-religious dialogue," promoting conversation and interaction among the world’s religious disciplines.

She said that through activism, women are spearheading the move toward pluralism.

"Part of this of course is because we are at the margins. And margins can talk across the fence a lot more easily," Eck said. "As women in interfaith dialogue, we are not as committed to talking about theology as dogma. We do not think for a moment that we speak or think for the whole of any tradition. We speak much more freely, on a whole variety of issues."

"Acting on Faith" was designed primarily as an educational tool. It is geared toward young adults and adults and will be showed in classrooms and other instructional settings. A curriculum guide is in development.

Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.



For more information:

The Plurism Project:


Muslim Women’s League: