"Honor Diaries" is an unsettling but hopeful documentary exploring the issues of gender inequality and oppression towards females amongst the Muslim culture. The film sheds light on such practices as arranged marriages and female genital mutilation(FGM). While savage and archaic in nature, these practices are still employed today, and in some cases are making their way to the Western hemisphere.
Paula Kweskin's "Honor Diaries" will screen as part of the Docufest documentary film competition at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. The film sees its world premiere today at 3pm. One of the film's featured activists is Raheel Raza. Raza is an accomplished author, the President of The Council For Muslims Facing Tomorrow, and a regular speaker at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The current Canadian resident is in Chicago promoting the film. Brandon Gaylor had the opportunity to sit down with Raza. The transcript(edited somewhat for brevity's sake) of the interview follows.
How did you come to be a part of "Honor Diaries"?
I've been an activist for women's rights…actually it's human rights. Muslim women-and I am a muslim woman-just happen to be a part of it. I've been an activist for the last twenty-five years in Canada. [The producer and director] actually found me, and they approached me. and asked me if I would like to be a part of it. I remember actually telling the producer and director that if they would allow us as muslim women to have our voice, yes, I would very much like to be a part of it. Because that to me is the key: the freedom that Muslim women need in their lives in Muslim countries. The freedom to say who they are, what they believe, how they implement the faith in their life or they don't. They were totally on board with it. That was last year in June. The producer arranged eight of us women to meet…in New Jersey. This was 24 hours of intense discussion and bonding. The rest is history.
The film states that you were born in Pakistan, but now live in Canada. What brought you to North America?
I left Pakistan about 35 years ago. I lived, for 10 years, in the Gulf in the middle east. My husband and I left Pakistan because we saw the signs of a political Islam. I use the term islamism. Islamism is the political manifestation of the spiritual message of Islam. This is what has brought this downfall in the Muslim world, with violence and terrorism. You know, power, patriarchy, politics which have totally overshadowed the spiritual message, which is what I believe. It is what I follow. I am an observing, practicing Muslim. I believe in the spiritual message of compassion and mercy.
In Pakistan, there was a lot of funding that was coming from Saudi Arabia. It was just the beginning of this Islamization process. And as I saw it, and my husband saw it, we decided that this is not for us because we were both outspoken activists against any kind of atrocities against minorities…against anybody who is living in [Pakistan]. We did not want to bring up our children in an atmosphere of such tension. And since then, Pakistan has been on a roller coaster of tension, and on a downward trend towards Islamization. I came Canada for a visit, and I fell in love with the country. The freedom that the country offered me(as a Muslim woman) is something I could have only dreamt of. So we packed our bags…and have never looked back. It is home now.
Apart from being The President of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, you are also the founder of Forum 4 Learning. Can you tell me more about that organization?
Forum 4 Learning is an organization I've been running for almost the whole time I've been in Canada. It's a forum for role development and learning for our youth. My children grew up in Canada; I now have grandchildren in Canada. Between the mosque and the mall, so to speak, there was no safe space where they could talk about issues that relate to them on a day-to-day basis. And I'm not talking about religion. I'm not there to teach Muslims about their religion; they can learn that at home. But to learn how to live in modern society, live with freedoms. Because many of us come from Muslim lands where there isn't freedom, so sometimes that freedom can be frightening. The idea that we have the freedom to believe or not believe and be who we are, anyway we want. Nobody is going to imprison us or beat us. The Muslim world has a very sad track record of how they have treated minorities, or how they have treated women.
So, we bring in speakers…another aspect of Forum 4 Learning is to bring art back into the culture of Islam. The soul of Islam had sort of been sucked out by the dogmatic views of the Saudi Wahhabi ideology, which is the overarching ideology that has created the Taliban. It has created Al Qaeda, has created violence in the name of Islam. We wanted our youth to be proud to be muslims and Canadian at the same time-to balance both. The best of both worlds, which is how I brought up my children. To be Canadians first, and then whatever their faith is. They are free to practice what they want. So Forum 4 Learning has been doing that.
In the film, Jasvinder(Sanghern) tells the story of her sister's fate(she took her own life after disappearing for several years, and becoming the victim of a forced marriage), and there is a moment where she says "Nobody stopped to ask the question 'why'? Why do you think nobody asks 'why'?
That's a great question…and that's one of the problems we are struggling with. North America is permeated in political correctness…this idea that cultural sensitivity is more important than human rights. It is an irony that we have to deal with. This idea that we cannot ask these straightforward questions to the Muslim community because perhaps this is their cultural value. That they marry off underage girls to older men, or girls are forced into marriage. Or performing female genital mutilation on young girls. Our mandate is culture is no excuse for abuse, and so these questions are not asked because of this perceived sensitivity to the issue. And we have encouraged this question. We say that you must ask these questions. This issue of not asking the right questions has caused a lot of grief to young Muslim girls who have actually been the victims of the same practices…tribal practices…that were imported from their lands of birth. I tend to refer to this as excess cultural baggage-something immigrants bring with us when we come to a new country.
Our culture-some of it can be very positive-but all cultures are not equal. Those cultures that do not respect minorities and women are not the same as Western cultures where there is equality embedded in the Constitution. It isn't the same in Muslim countries because there isn't the freedom, there isn't the equality. So when immigrants come to North America and they want to impose those same values on their children, then it becomes a huge problem. And when the mainstream institutions like schools and teachers don't ask why there is abuse? Why are there marks on your body? Why are you suddenly pulled out of class? Then they don't get the answers.
There was a very particular case in Canada last year(the Shafia family murders). It was world news. The authorities looked the other way…they said, maybe this is their culture, so we are not going to ask the questions. And look what happened. These young girls, in the bloom of their youth, were brutally killed. Jasvinder has actually addressed it to the point where she was able to empower [Prime Minister] David Cameron to make forced marriage a criminal offense in the UK. Forced marriage is not a criminal offense in the United States and Canada. It comes under the banner of domestic violence or domestic abuse, which is not the same thing.
In the film you state that awareness is the most important thing. Can you expound on that idea?
This refers to Muslim communities in North America…I say North America because I'm referring to both Canada and the U.S. Awareness is the idea that maybe twenty years ago, or ten years ago…it's very difficult for mainstream Canadians and Americans who have been brought up in these freedoms. You take your freedoms for granted because it's the norm. So it's very hard for people to understand some of these issues.
I'll give you an example: yesterday I gave an interview, and the reporter asked me, 'isn't what you are talking about the same as Orthodox Jewish women speaking about domestic violence?' And I immediately corrected her because domestic violence-as opposed to honor killings, female genital mutilation, and forced marriage-is an entirely different thing.…there is freedom to speak up. There are hotlines. There is no help line for a woman being forced into marriage because violence hasn't occurred yet. The police are going to say 'we can't do anything' because violence hasn't occurred. But it is an act of oppression.
So the awareness that these issues are unacceptable, in the name of culture…of anything…because human rights trump all of these other values. Girls living in the West must know they are safe. They must know that they can turn to somebody. The solution that this film is offering…they are setting the AHA Foundation, working to setup the first helpline that will be for girls who may be in forced marriages. Jasvinder started this in the UK. The beauty of this film is that we were able to bond with each other, and we're now able to look at solutions. I'm trying to lobby the Canadian government to setup a help line specifically for these issues..for forced marriage, for FGM. And FGM is taking place in North America, where it is illegal. It's being done under the cover of cultural values. So that is where awareness is so important.
The media needs to know that these are real issues; we are not talking about domestic violence. A forced marriage is a criminal offense, and it should be considered a criminal offense. Honor killing has now been made a criminal offense in Canada. Before this it wasn't. There are too many cases of forced marriage, FGM and honor violence in North America for us to be comfortable and sleep at night. I personally mentor many young girls, who again, because they have nowhere to go to…they come to me for help. I'm not a legal expert; I can guide them somewhere. But we desperately need this hotline…we need the mainstream government, our politicians, our leaders, our feminist groups to understand that this is the severity of the problem.
You mention the term 'Islamiphobia' in the film. Can you give some background on that term?
The favorite term of the Islamists. It is not a term you will find in any dictionary. It's a coined term-a muslim-coined term. On one hand, we have the OIC, which is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a group of the most powerful 53 Arab Muslim countries that are accredited to the United Nations. Essentially their purpose to be there at the U.N. is to discredit Israel at every point. They aren't interested in human rights, they are more interested in their anti-Semitic attitude. They are not particularly concerned with women's rights. In these Muslim countries, women and minorities are treated like dirt. This is where the worst record of human rights violations [comes from]. Look at Saudi Arabia. Iran. Pakistan. Three powerful, large Muslim countries. Terrible records of human rights violations.
And on the other hand, in the West we have the freedom to speak out, so the term Islamiphobia has been coined to deflect any criticism of Islam or Muslims. So it brings me back to the question you asked about awareness…this is the awareness. Many Westerners are scared to speak out. Why? Because this Islamiphobia label, and they are going to be called racist. They deflect it away from the real problem. Women are being abused, but as soon as they are criticized, the Islamic organizations-the most radical ones-immediately say this is Islamiphobia. They say 'this is not happening; we treat our women very well.' And I can tell you the statistics say differently.
And for me, one woman being oppressed, being killed for wanting to be like other girls. For wanting to intermingle and go to school…that is unacceptable. And I want all of my fellow Canadians and Americans to stand up and say this is unacceptable. But they don't, because Islamiphobia is this huge monster out there. All it does is deflect on the real issue. And this is why I come back to the film, and why it is so important for Muslim women to speak out. They can't slap me with an Islamiphobia label, because I am a Muslim.
The film spends time discussing 'salvation culture'(the idea of punishing a woman, even to the point of death, for what is considered behavior that would be dishonorable to her family). I believe it is mentioned in the film that such an idea doesn't stem from the religious beliefs of the Muslim population. Where do you think it comes from?
It comes from patriarchal, tribal cultures in the seventh century, when Islam came as a message. I'm going to take you back in history because that is how I discovered Islam, as a faith, actually gave rights to women. [This was] at a time where newborn girls were being buried alive. Women were considered to be without a soul and they were bought and sold as slaves. This was pre-Islamic Arabia.
One of the revelations to Muhammad(we believe) was…you do not treat your women unkindly. They have a right to marriage; they have a right to divorce. In Islam, a woman can even give a proposal of marriage. As soon as the prophet died, politics took over. That is when political Islam took birth: on the deathbed of the prophet. It was all about power, patriarchy, and politics. This patriarchy has embedded itself in Muslim societies. I will clarify here…Judaism and Christianity are all patriarchal…[but] they have worked their way to reformation…to education, to enlightenment, whereas many Muslim societies are still living in seventh century Arabia.
That's one of our biggest challenges…find a way to bring Islam, and make the Quran relevant in this day and age. It's embedded in patriarchy; however, religion is used as an excuse. The Quran is not in chronological order. It's a very hard read…together because of beauty: the longest verses are at the beginning, the shortest verses at the end. It's like reading a book from the middle, the end and then the beginning. So it is very hard to understand.
What the extremists do is they take lines out of context. You can do that with any book, any scripture and can mean something different. You have to look at it in historical context: what was applicable in seventh century Arabia is not applicable today. We don't ride on camels anymore. Women work. They are equal to the men; sometime superior. That acceptance has not come in. The silence of the leadership…they may not say 'beat the women', but they are not addressing the issue either. They are just being silent on it. And that silence is deafening.
There are many examples in the film of women contributing to the violence against other women[in one case, a woman assists her husband in the death of her daughter by throwing acid on her]. Why do they do this? What is their mindset when they are doing this?
I would honestly have to tell you that I can't even begin to imagine what their mindset would be. It's mind-boggling to imagine that a mother would do this to her child. But they have, so I guess they've been brainwashed to believe that this is the right thing to do. And in many cases-although it is not religious-it is used as a religious crutch. Religion is involved, because religion is a toxic influence…a powerful influence. People have killed masses of people throughout the history of the world based on this religious zealotry. So religion is used to brainwash these women into thinking that they are doing the right thing.
And don't get me wrong: the extremists that blew up the Twin Towers thought they were doing it for religion. They thought they were going to go to heaven and find, perhaps, 72 virgins. I went through the Quran from the first page to the last; read many different versions…where are these 72 virgins mentioned? There is no mention of them. This is a sick man's fantasy. But we are not a reading community by-and-large. You have to look at third world countries..almost 75 percent of the population is not educated. You have illiteracy combined with toxic religiosity…they have been told. Any man in the village who happens to be the village idiot-and I don't say this factiously-can stand up and say, 'It says in the Quran that women should not work." He has never read the Quran because he cannot read. He has never interpreted it, he has never understood it. But he wants to be powerful. This is where the hate and the hostility and the teachings come from. So it's brainwashing; it's brainwashing of a certain ideology.
And we, as progressive, liberal, freedom-loving Muslims have to detoxify that atmosphere. We have to pull these people out of this brainwashing and say no, read for yourself. For women, this is especially true…when I was growing up, the men were always telling me I couldn't do this or I couldn't do that. And I was a rebel, and I said 'unless I see it in writing myself, I'm not going to believe you. I am a believer that God would not create us unequal, so I decided to investigate that, and I found, to my pleasure, that there was no such crap in the Quran! It was man-made crap, and women tend to swallow it. Sometimes, they use it as a crutch because they have no choice. We need education, empowerment…we are at the very beginning of a reform where all this will come. I have hope.
Why did gender inequality seem to take a turn for the worse in the late seventies, and why did it seem to coincide with the changes in country leadership?
That was about the time when my husband and I left Pakistan in the 70's. It was when the OPEC oil situation gave a lot of power to Saudi Arabia because of oil. Saudi Arabia is where this ideology of Wahhabism…the ideology of dogma, the ideology that the only good Muslim is a seventh-century Muslim [comes from]. This is a country where they tell women they can't drive because it's un-Islamic. Hello! There were no cars in seventh-century Arabia. All this brainwashing takes place, and this was being exported on the backs of billion of petrol dollars, to other Muslim countries and to the West. And this is when the downhill trend started.
I grew up in Pakistan, and let me tell you: I went to a Catholic convent. I learned the Lord's Prayer before I learned my own. I studied in a full education school. There was music, there was dancing. There was art, literature; there was even alcohol in an Islamic country like Pakistan1 Religion was not thrust down our throats. But in the 70's, this trend started. The export of this ideology between the Shiites of Iran and the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia-because there is a turf war…and this turf war is being played out in countries like Pakistan.
And you now have the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, which is like the third prong to the triangle. And none of them are women-friendly. None of them are minority friendly. If they wanted to adopt an ideology in which they embraced minorities and women I would have no problem with it. It's the freedom, and the freedom slowly started being usurped. And we saw it. We saw the writing on the wall, so none of this comes as a surprise.
Can you tell me more about The Council For Muslims Facing Tomorrow?
The Council For Muslims Facing Tomorrow has a very interesting advisory board. We invite people of different faiths to be part of our advisory board, because it is a Canadian institution. It's an institution where we want our youth to be proud Canadians and Muslims at the same time. We want to bring back art and culture; we want to speak about freedoms and modernity. And to be able to have a Canadian/Islamic ethos. An indigenous, Canadian-Islamic culture that our children will be proud to follow. But it's a long way.
What do you hope people's reactions will be when they see "Honor Diaries"?
I hope that their reaction is going to be very positive in terms of helping the cause. We are looking for a helpline; we want to start a helpline. I hope that they will start talking amongst their selves, that there will be dialogue and debate and discussion. And questions. Put us on the spot. You don't have to accept everything we're saying, so ask us questions because we are the ones who are the frontline soldiers in this battle.
And I have always believed that the change has to come from within. For me, the change has to come from within the framework of Islam. It is Muslims that have to stand up and speak out. It is Muslim women who have to take charge. I'll end by telling you I have a firm belief that the change, the reform is going to come from North America and from Muslim women, because it has already started.
"Honor Diaries" screens today at 3pm. It will screen again on Tuesday, October 15 at 5:30pm.