Unexpected Allies: Feminism, Religious Studies and the Bright Lights of Broadway
By Christy Cobb
Theater has been one of my passions since childhood. I acted in my first play (Alice in Alice in Wonderland) when I was in 5th grade and following that performance, theater became an important part of my life. In high school I performed in several productions and in college I pursued a double major – theater and religion. I participated in at least one play each year before I entered academia. A number of these productions intersected with my interest in religious studies (Godspell, The Crucible, etc.), but for the most part those aspects of my life stay separate. Since I began graduate school I have been satisfying my desire for theater through my support of local productions. I now live in New York City, and choices of plays and musicals abound. While every play can be analyzed from a feminist angle and many plays also include religious themes, it is not often that I come across a play that deals directly with the feminism and religion. Recently, though, I saw a play that did just that.
The Who and the What, by Ayad Akhtar, an Off-Broadway production held at Lincoln Center in NYC this summer, explores the challenges faced by a Muslim woman living in the United States. While the play closed at the end of July, reviews of it were quite positive (see: New York Times, NY Daily News, and Theater Mania) and another play by Akhtar, Disgraced, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and recently announced that it will open on Broadway in the fall. The plot of The Who and The What is centered on the character Zarina, a young Pakistani-American woman who is a Harvard graduate and is writing her first novel. Zarina is a strong, opinionated woman who yearns to explore “gender politics” in her novel but yet is unable to expose these aspects of her identity to her family, particularly because of her father, who holds conservative beliefs about the proper behavior of women. Obsessed with the history of the hijab, Zarina wants to write a novel that examines the “who” and the “what” of Muhammad. Balancing her academic interests and feminist ideas with her faith is a struggle for Zarina, as is dealing with the pressure her family is putting on her to marry. Zarina’s younger sister, Mahwish, is already engaged and the relationship between the sisters adds another layer of complexity to the play, that is, relationships between women who hold contrasting views about religion. Afzal, the father of the two women, is a man of deep religious convictions. Because of this he is tortured – pulled between his love for Islam, as he understands it, and his love and respect for his daughters.
Picture (Erin Balano): Bernard White, Tala Ashe and Nadine Malouf
Picture (Erin Balano): Nadine Malouf and Tala Ashe
Recently, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion has published a number of articles in the fields of Islamic Studies and Islamic Feminism. One example is a roundtable titled “Religion, Gender, and the Muslimwoman” published in the 2008 Spring issue (JFSR 24.1, Spring 2008). This roundtable is especially relevant as the participants present a variety of views and opinions, not only about the veil, but also about the representation of Muslim women, or, to use miriam cooke’s term, “Muslimwoman” in media and the popular imagination. Additionally, academic conversations such as this one allow space for discussions on the intersection of Islamic studies and feminism – topics that are often not included as major part of religious studies curriculums, but need to be. Islam is not an academic specialty of mine, and I was made even more aware of this gap in my educational experience while sitting in the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center listening to these talented actors directly address such an important and relevant topic. Art is able to address controversial issues such as this one directly, and in this way, actively counter the silence often experienced in academia when confronted with these very same topics. Judy Chicago, a feminist artist, describes this phenomenon well: “I believe in art that is connected to real human feeling, that extends itself beyond the limits of the art world to embrace all people who are striving for alternatives in an increasingly dehumanized world.” Similarly, feminist studies is beginning to provide the space for voices from around the world to speak, write, and debate the complex arguments within topics such as this one. Art is one venue that we should turn to as we continue the discussion.
It’s exciting to find a play such as The Who and the What that incorporates topics significant to feminist studies in religion and resonates with scholarly conversations in an artistic way. As I sat in the theater I found myself imagining the religious studies students that could benefit from a class trip to see a play like this one – and the lively discussions that would follow! More and more musicals and plays are focused on Jewish and Christian stories and themes (see this article), while few are focused on other religions and even fewer incorporate feminist views critically within them. Many of these religiously themed plays also deserve the attention of scholars of religious studies, and feminists as well. For example, Violet, a musical revival that is currently playing on Broadway, incorporates themes such as evangelicalism, race, gender, and body image. Another Broadway play, While We were Young and Unafraid portrays the complexity of the feminist movement in the 1970s through the story of women housed in an underground shelter. Discussions about plays and musicals such as these have the potential to enhance feminist scholarship and teaching in a profound way. As I continue to support the theater and simultaneously participate in feminist scholarship, I will certainly look out for plays like this one that become unexpected bridges between these two passions in my life.
Christy Cobb is a doctoral candidate at Drew University in the Graduate Division of Religion where she focuses on New Testament/Early Christianity with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies. She holds a MA in Religious Studies from Wake Forest University (2010) as well as a MDiv from Campbell University (2006). During the school year, Christy is an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. When not attending plays in NYC, she is writing her dissertation, ‘Girls’ Speaking Truth: Female Slaves in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives. Christy also serves as the Submissions Editor for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Follow her on Twitter @clcobb629.