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Arranging Relationships

Beneath the hijab and the snood, are we really so different? The recent independent film “Arranged” presents two women from seemingly opposing religions, Islam and Judaism, who quickly develop a deep friendship while working together in a public school. Their respective attempts at finding husbands emphasize the distinct similarities of their pious and richly traditional lives.

“Arranged,” a title indicating arranged marriages, is actually a misnomer; the young women in the film attend arranged dates but ultimately have the freedom to choose whom they will marry. In this and other ways, the film breaks some of the more disconcerting stereotypes surrounding these icons of two clashing faiths. Rochel (Zoe Lister-Jones), the religious Jew, a meek though effective teacher, echoes Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in her determination to marry only for love and not simply to appease her parents or society’s expectations. Nasira (Francis Benhamou), mysteriously beautiful beneath her scarf, also struggles with a traditional upbringing within a more progressive world, craving a relationship that would satisfy her intellect as well as her religious lifestyle.

Set in a public school that prides itself on being pluralistic and emphasizing tolerance, the internal conflicts of the two leading women are seen through a prism of conditional open-mindedness. Their department head, ostensibly an enlightened woman, espouses a philosophy of acceptance toward other cultures, yet views her two religious teachers as backward and an insult to the progress of feminism. She’s unable to see these devout women as progressive, despite their forward thinking and innovative teaching.

Despite the misleading traditional garb, these two women represent a refreshing balance, maintaining cultural and spiritual ideals while seeing the world in a more enlightened way than their more rigid parents, who respond to this friendship with varying degrees of hesitation and alarm. While the two women are renegades in their own way, insisting on living lives with more breadth than they may have been exposed to at home, they are also equally bound to their faiths. Rochel and Nasira stand up to their parents when needed, as the comical display of unsuitable suitors parades through the film. Opting for intelligent and open-minded men whom they manage to meet in spite of the seemingly ineffective and archaic “system,” the two women’s romantic success reveals the added sweetness that a chaste courtship can offer. This film reinforces the importance of seeing the person under the hair covering.