Behzti Affair Lecture Review

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How often do you find yourself on a rainy day sitting in a classroom with five other people and a Cambridge professor talking about feminism, multiculturalism, and terrorism?  If you're me, not often.  On Friday afternoon I went to see Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer in English at Cambridge, speak at UC Berkeley about Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's 2004 play Behzti.  I walked into the talk and was immediately hit with a bit of culture shock:   Said (bam!), Derrida (pop!), Foucault (kazaam!).  But then I got back into the grove of grad school speak and was able to take away some interesting things from the lecture.

Gupreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Behzti (Dishonor), was staged in the UK and closed by 400 people who attempted to storm the theatre in protest coupled with the public censure of a variety of local religious leaders.  Bhatti herself ended up in hiding in France, and the play has only been staged for one private audience since its failed run in 2004.  The piece, described by Professor Gopal as not a "great cultural artifact," explores the rifts in a Sikh family and community in Britain.  The plot explores a secular mother and daughter's reconnection to their religious community.  During the play an allusion to a rape that happens in an office attached to a gurdwara is made and the bisexuality of a community leader is discussed, hence the controversy.

Professor Gopal identifies several significant cultural shifts that provide a backdrop for the controversy.  The first is the shift after 9/11 from identifying minority communities as primarily defined by racial or ethnic characteristics to minority communities being primarily identified by faith.  Faith leaders, as a result, increasingly represent and speak for entire minority communities.  Second is the clash between liberalism and multiculturalism, which has lead to the advent of "muscular liberalism" (I've been trying to visualize "muscular liberalism" and keep failing, although it does have the tendency to leave me giggling).  Multiculturalism seeks to accept a variety of different cultural elements in a society while respecting each culture's boundaries and values.  Liberalism's main focus is supporting civil liberties and social reform.  The two come into conflict over controversies like Behzti, where multiculturalism holds that the local Sikh community can stop the public display of a play that they regard as heretical while liberalism defends the right of free speech.  Hence "muscular liberalism"- a liberalism that supports multiculturalism as long as it respects liberal principals of free speech and civil rights.  Once multiculturalism steps over that line, however, the tolerance stops.

Into all of this swirling controversy steps feminism, seemingly at odds with both multiculturalism and liberalism, muscular or not (liberalism extends civil rights to women, of course, but seeing as the founders of liberalism were largely men, there's some inevitable tension there).  How does a feminist interact with faith communities that tend to articulate a non-feminist vision of women (I'm certainly not limiting this discussion to Sikhism- pretty much all organized religions fall under this heading)?  Professor Gopal asserts that feminists must not flatly reject faith traditions as patriarchal or anti-feminist.  Instead, she says a feminist must speak from a position of difficulty- respecting liberalism, respecting multiculturalism, but also recognizing places and times when when anti-feminist rhetoric and action is apparent and should be identified.  How to manage such a thing is beyond me, but in theory it sounds like a plausible, if complicated, way forward.