In early January, the University announced that the Center for the Arts (CFA) had received a grant for the Muslim Women Voices Project from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Wesleyan was one of six universities to receive the grant of $200,000.
Director of the Center for the Arts Pamela Tatge discussed the purpose of the grant.
“The idea was [for The Association of Performing Arts Presenters to] conceive of pilot projects in American universities…that would impact the stereotyping of Muslims that happens in the United States,” Tatge said. “In other words…projects that allow people to enter into the complexity of what it means to be a Muslim person.”
The other institutions that received the grant were the University of South Florida, the University of Houston, Georgetown University, LaGuardia Community College, and Augsburg College. Tatge described the opportunities that the award will open up to the recipients’ arts programs.
“It’s…a recognition of the interdisciplinary thinking that happens at Wesleyan and the sensitivity we have when we approach cultures,” Tatge said. “I think that is a magnificent award, and…it’s very difficult to bring artists from abroad in terms of the costs of travel, but also visas…. So this enables us to bring artists that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to bring [to campus].”
Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk, one of the professors who worked with Tatge to come up with proposals for the program, expounded upon the importance of the exposure of Muslim culture to the University.
“Wesleyan exists in an American context that has been Islamophobic for centuries,” Gottschalk wrote in an email to The Argus. “Even the nation’s founders made anti-Muslim comments, disparaging a religion with which none of them had had any contact. In the past forty years, matters have worsened (although lately there have been some signs of hope as well). So it’s important to hear more Muslim voices on campus, in addition to the ones that are already part of our community.”
Gottschalk also described how the grant will focus on hearing more women’s voices.
“Many Islamophobic perspectives focus on the supposedly inherent oppression of women in Muslim communities,” Gottschalk wrote. “These views often discount what Muslim women say about their own experience, unless it proves the point about oppression. So hearing Muslim women express their own selves, in various media and performances, and not only as Muslims or women but with the wide range of identities we all carry will be helpful.”
Hira Jafri ’13, a current graduate student in psychology and a member of the Muslim Women Voices Project planning committee, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with representatives from the other recipients of the grant and members of the Doris Duke Foundation.
“[At the summit] we basically talked about each individual project because each school is doing a different thing,” Jafri said. “We went through the creative ideas we have to institute these projects on our campuses, how to get our communities involved, [and] how to incorporate our projects into different courses with certain professors.”
Tatge described the grant as part of a campus initiative to spread the arts program across the University.
“This project is part of the Creative Campus Initiative, which is about taking the arts across the campus in interdisciplinary ways, affecting curricular and co-curricular life,” Tatge said. “So it is perfectly in line with the kind of work we’ve done in the past, in terms of identifying departments where we could embed an artist into the curricular setting.”
Tatge spoke about the parts of the program that will begin this fall.
“If we succeed, we’ll have women from nine different countries and nine different Muslim cultures…here at Wesleyan next year,” Tatge said. “It will kick off with a major panel on Islamaphobia that will be coordinated by Gottschalk. And then the first event is the Muslim Women in Hip-Hop festival in September.”
The grant will also allow the Project to bring playwright Leila Buck ’99 to campus in the fall to collaborate with students on a new piece. Buck, a Lebanese-American writer, has written plays such as “In the Crossing” and “HKEELEE (Talk to Me).”
Associate Professor of French and Letters Typhaine Leservot will also be involved in programs sponsored by the grant.
“I will be offering a new course (in French) on gender in the Maghreb and will organize a lecture series on the topic (in English) open to the public so as to complement the Muslim Women Voices Project in the fall,” Leservot wrote in an email to The Argus.
Those involved in the project hope that it will challenge stereotypes of Muslim women, both on campus and beyond.
“Our hope is to portray the complexity of the Muslim woman, that there is no monolithic Muslim woman because each country has its own cultural tradition, there are many different tenants and strands of Islam,” Tatge said. “We hope that we will not only have the chance to witness these women perform but also share their stories. There will be informal times for students and community members to meet these women as well as their public performances, which we hope we’ll contextualize and really make rich for everybody.”
Jafri expanded on Tatge’s articulation of the Muslim Women Voices Project’s objectives at the University.
“Women in Islam are very misrepresented in the general media,” Jafri said. “The perceptions that the average person has about a Muslim woman are very streamlined, and what we want to do is show the multidimensionality of Muslim women.”
Jafri described the group’s goals for the creative projects that will be implemented with the aid of the grant.
“We want to make [the topic] more accessible to students because, for a lot of performances on campus, only students who are involved in the arts want to go, but we really want to make this series accessible to people who may not usually find themselves at a concert or at a dance performance or even talking about Muslims and…their culture,” Jafri said.
Additional reporting contributed by Arts Editor Gwendolyn Rosen.