Acting on Faith

Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America (2005)

Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America is a documentary film that offers an intimate look at the lives and work of three American women – one Buddhist, one Hindu, and one Muslim – for whom faith, activism, and identity are deeply intertwined.

In Acting on Faith, we see these women at work, with their families, and at play. We hear them reflect on their experiences, and tell us in their own voices what kinds of identities they seek to build – for themselves and for their communities.

Their stories help us to consider the compatibility of feminism and religion, and the tension of being a voice of critique without alienating one’s community or inviting outside prejudice. Their strategies are simple yet surprising:

  • Shamita Das Dasgupta uses strong female figures in Hindu myth to provide encouragement to battered women to leave abusive husbands
  • Laila Al-Marayati illustrates how the Muslim principle of ‘zakat’ served as the inspiration for the first free clinic in South Central Los Angeles
  • Mushim Ikeda-Nash integrates the uniquely relational experiences of women into the American Buddhist practice

This film offers insight into, and encourages dialogue on, the powerful streams of thought and action that are being created by women activists of different religious and cultural traditions here in the United States. It is a face-to-face encounter with the women who are pioneering this new religious activism. 

Film Details

  • Producer: Rachel Antell
  • Run-time: 42 minutes

About the Women

Laila Al-Marayati is the spokesperson and past president of the Muslim Women’s League (MWL), a Los Angeles based organization dedicated to strengthening the role of Muslim women in society. Laila has written articles and participated in numerous conferences addressing issues such as basic women’s rights in Islam, reproductive health and sexuality, stereotyping, violence against women, the rights of Palestinians, and international religious freedom. She spearheaded the MWL’s efforts on behalf of rape survivors from the recent war in Bosnia, was a member of the US delegation to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, was a Presidential appointee to the Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001, and was a member of the State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. Laila is a Board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist working as the Director of Women’s Health at the Northeast Valley Health Corporation in Southern California and volunteering at the UMMA Community Clinic, the first Muslim free health clinic in the country. She is currently developing a middle school curriculum that approaches human development and sexuality from within an Islamic framework. She and her husband, Salam Al-Marayati, have three children: Malek, Zayd and Jinan.

Shamita Das Dasgupta is a cofounder of Manavi, Inc., the pioneer organization in the US to focus on violence against South Asian immigrant women. Manavi (meaning “primal woman” in Sanskrit) is a non-profit organization for women who trace their cultural heritage to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Founded in 1985, Manavi’s goal is to increase awareness of women’s rights in society, to encourage social change to end all violence against women, and to empower South Asian women. Manavi provides critical supportive services to women who are especially vulnerable to abuse due to their cultural socialization and recent immigration. Its approach is nonjudgmental, non-religious, and nonsectarian. Currently, Shamita is a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law at the NYU Law School. She has published over 20 articles in her areas of specialization: ethnicity, gender, and immigration. She is the author of two books, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (1995, Interlink Books) and A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America (1998, Rutgers University Press). Her next book on domestic violence in the South Asian American context is scheduled to be published in 2006 (Rutgers University Press).

Mushim Ikeda-Nash is a community peace activist, writer, diversity facilitator, and mother of a teenage son. She has done both monastic and lay Zen practice over the past twenty years in the US, Canada, Mexico, and South Korea. As consulting editor to Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism, she also contributes a quarterly column on family life and Buddhist practice, and her poetry and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies such as Shambhala Sun; Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream; and Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism. Mushim was coeditor of Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities, and she has served as chairperson of the San Francisco Zen Center Board Committee on Diversity and Multiculturalism. She was included in the documentary film, Between the Lines: Asian American Women Poets. Mushim lives in Oakland, California with her family, and volunteers as a literature teacher in the Oakland public high school where her son attends.

Media Coverage and Related Links


In addition to the Harvard premiere, we have offered screenings of Acting on Faith in various locations including:

  • Screening at World Religions After September 11: A Global Congress in Montreal, Canada, September 12, 2006

  • On September 12, 2006 Assistant Director Kathryn Lohre hosted a screening of Acting on Faith as a workshop session at World Religions After September 11: A Global Congress in Montreal, Canada. Women active in grassroots interfaith work actively participated in the discussion that followed about the relevance of the film to their own work.

  • On August 4, 2006, Rachel Antell, the filmmaker, presented Acting on Faith at the University of California, Berkeley. The film was featured in a plenary session of the Asian Pacific Americans and Religion Research Initiative Conference, on “Democracy and Its Discontents: Religion and the Underside of Pacific and Asian North America.” The themes of the film resonated with the goals of the conference, which explored “the condition of democracy today for those Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at the margins of the American body politic and ask[ed] how religion intersects with these lives overlooked or adversely affected by current articulations of ‘democracy.’”

  • On April 11, 2006, Acting on Faith was screened at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Kathryn Lohre presented the film; this screening was co-sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government.

  • On March 2, 2006, Acting on Faith was presented on March 2, 2006 at the United Nations Church Center in honor of International Women’s Day. A multi-religious panel responded to excerpts from the film, followed by a reception. The event was co-sponsored by the United Methodist Office for the UN, Religions for Peace-USA., Women In Islam, Inc., the Temple of Understanding, the Lutheran Office for the World Community, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Office of the Chaplain of the Church Center for the UN.

  • On February 15, 2006, Acting on Faith was featured at the University of Louisville’s “Season of Dissent Film Festival,” which explored the role of dissent in civic and cultural life. As part of “Transforming Tradition: Women, Faith, and Dissent,” the screening of the film was followed by a panel discussion with three women activists from the Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic traditions. The event was held at the Kentucky Theatre, and was free and open to the public with sponsorship from a range of community partners.

  • Screening at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Washington DC, January 24, 2005

  • On January 24, 2005 the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Pluralism Project co-hosted a reception and screening of Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America at the IWPR office in Washington DC. Guests included IWPR members, local interfaith leaders, and members of our women’s networks. Kathryn Lohre introduced the film, provided commentary, and lead discussion on behalf of the Pluralism Project. The purpose of the event was to provide an opportunity for networking among people interested in IWPR’s research and outreach program: “Politics, Religion and Women’s Public Vision.” This event was critical in forging stronger connections between the Pluralism Project and secular women’s organizations.

  • Screening at Glastonbury Abbey, Hingham, Massachusetts, January 19. 2005

  • On January 19, 2005 Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts hosted a screening of Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America as part of its interfaith lecture series, “Listening to Other Voices: Religion and the World We Live In.” The event drew over one hundred local residents and members of the Abbey. Kathryn Lohre was there to introduce the film, offer comments about the Pluralism Project and our women’s networks, and to lead discussion.

  • South Asian International Film Festival, New York City, December 10, 2005

  • Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America was featured in the 2005 South Asian International Film Festival held in New York City, December 7-11. Featured in a showcase of shorts and documentaries, the film was well received by the audience.

We encourage you to consider hosting a screening in your community, organization, school, or congregation, and the online study guide  will assist you in your preparations. 

Purchasing Information

DVDs of Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America may be purchased for $40 USD each, including shipping and handling. VHS copies are available by special request.

Please use the order form at the bottom of our brochure to place your order. Checks should be made payable to “Harvard University.”

If you have any questions, please contact the Pluralism Project at or at 617-496-2481.

Click here to read more about the filmmaker, Rachel Antell.