Thanks to recent incidents like the Arab Spring uprising and the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who became an international icon for women's rights after being shot in the head and nearly killed by Taliban members for committing the outrage of wanting to go to school, the subject of the oppression of human rights, especially women's rights, in Muslim-centered societies has garnered attention around the globe. This is the subject of "Honor Diaries," a new documentary that brings together nine women's rights advocates from those worlds to discuss what hardships and cruelties women are forced to endure, often in the name of "honor," though their own experiences and how they can work to change things for women for the better both in their communities and in the world at large.
Now currently appearing on DIRECTV's Audience as part of its "Something to Talk About" film series, "Honor Diaries" screened this past fall as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. During that time, producer, human rights lawyer and activist Paula Kweskin sat down with me to talk about the film and the issues that it raises.
When did you first become interested in the field of human rights as the focus for your life?
Honestly, I was 14 or 15. I was originally from Charlotte, North Carolina and there was a program that was sponsored to meet a Chinese dissident named Harry Wu. This was a group of high-school students and we were speaking with him and I was just so mesmerized by him and his story. He had been in an internment camps for many years as a dissident and yet, he remained so humble, so peaceful and so optimistic. He just spoke to us heart to heart and I felt I knew him intimately by the end of the hour or so that we had together. He spoke about a particular topic that has stayed with me throughout my entire life and that is the happenstance and coincidence of geography. A person doesn't really have any control over where they are born, right? We are all humans and individuals and yet, where we are born fundamentally shapes our existence and we have no control over it. He pointed to the map of China and showed the rugged landscape and showed that even if a person wanted to escape China and the borders were open, there is really nowhere to go--there isn't even a sense of freedom in the geography of China. It was a really compelling experience and I just knew immediately that I wanted to dedicate my life to thinking profoundly about these questions and making sure that no matter where a person is born, they have the same fundamental rights and liberties as someone born in a more open and free society.
How did the film "Honor Diaries" and your participation in it come about?
I was told about the concept for putting together a group of women's rights activists. I had been doing some other human rights work and I found it to be stimulating but I was always afraid about the lack of impact it was making--with the different legal briefs and reports I was writing, I just imagined that maybe one or two people were reading them and that they were not having a tremendous impact. The concept of using film as a medium to speak truth to power and to really empower people and be an advocacy tool really struck me right away. I care deeply about human rights but I am particularly passionate about women's rights, so this was the perfect combination. The idea grew to focus not just on women's rights but on women's rights in honor-based societies, which is a topic that few people speak about openly or candidly.
What was the process for recruiting the on-camera participants?
It was a lot of research and a lot of reaching out to different contacts. In many cases, I would just send an e-mail and say that this is what I was doing, that I really wanted to present these topics and that I cared a lot about what they were doing. We would talk for a few minutes on Skype and one Skype call led to another. These women are so passionate and they really do want the platform to be able to speak so openly. Happily, while it was a difficult task in that it took a long time, it was ultimately fruitful in that a lot of people wanted to participate.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is that when it comes to discussion the cruelties against women in the Muslim world, the speakers are careful to differentiate between the actual religion and the honor-based culture that has sprung up alongside it and which is largely responsible for perpetuating such anti-woman attitudes. This is a difference that is often lost when discussing Muslim culture and I was curious about how you went about approaching it here.
I think one of the most empowering parts of the film is that it tracks a frank and candid and open debate among a lot of different women with a lot of different backgrounds, so if audiences pay attention, they will see that even sometimes the arguments are crossed--one woman will say that this is culture and another will say that this is religion and yet another will say that it is society-based. We really don't want to draw conclusions--we really wanted to create questions and let audiences draw their own conclusions and to also ask questions. Really, one of the goals of the film is to take these issues and problems that are undeniable and ask women and men to start speaking about these issues in their own salons--gather your friends and family and really speak in a frank and open way about cultural and religious and societal issues. We really want to empower people to dialogue because the thing that all the women could agree on is that when these issues are brought out of the shadows and shatter the silence on them, that is when change can finally happen.
This film is not anti-Muslim in any way, shape or form. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about it is that it shows women from different faiths being able to speak openly together and one of the things that I am most proud of is that we are able to show positive representations of Muslim women like Raquel Saraswati (pictured above) and Raheel Raza (pictured below) and others who are tremendously dedicated to their faith and yet draw a line when it comes to abuse. They say "I am a Muslim but this is not what my religion and culture represents." I think they are the women and the voices that should be celebrated to say that we should never excuse abuse--culture is no excuse for abuse. These women are strong Muslim leaders and figures and yet, they are able to say "Not in the name of my religion, not in the name of my culture."
In working on this project, what did you personally learn that you did not know before going into it?
It was a tremendous growth and learning experience for me and I am very inspired by these women. There are two things that I learned in particular. One is that I never really put much faith or hope in just education. I always heard that ignorance is the source of a lot of the abuse in the world and I wasn't always certain that was true. There is this incredible moment when one tells the story about how she was able to convince the elder of her family not to condone female genital mutilation and she was able to do that by handing him a pamphlet outlining the harms of FGM and how these had profound and long-lasting effects on women. When he read the information, he broke down crying and said "We will never tolerate this abuse in our family again." That was just one act of educating a person and of bringing forth a dialogue and it had an incredible and long-lasting impact on generations of women in her family. It is interesting that now I believe even more in simple education and talking that I did before.
The other thing that I learned, which I think is important to talk about, is that oftentimes, women are the main maintainers of a patriarchal system. I consider myself a feminist and an activist for women's rights but I think that one of the bitter pills that I have to swallow is that sometimes it is women that are perpetuating these issues and the violence that takes place. I think we just need to be honest with ourselves and think about ways that we can engage both men and women to be able to put an end to the abuse.
When screening a film like "Honor Diaries" at a festival like this, the majority of the audience in attendance will almost certainly be people who already have a vested interest in the subject matter. What are your hopes for getting the film out to a wider audience that may not have any thoughts or knowledge about the atrocities going on in the world today that are discussed?
Certainly the Chicago International Film Festival is a tremendous platform for us and we have already been accepted to the St. Louis International Film Festival and we hope to be accepted into more and more festivals because that is an incredible way to start the conversation. We also are proud to be partnering with over 25 human rights and women's rights organizations all over the world and these partners believe in our message and realize that this is not just a movie but a movement of dedicated individuals. We have tapped into their networks and we will be doing screenings all over the world. We are officially launching the film in March so between now and then, we have a tremendous opportunity to build momentum. March 8th is International Women's Day and we are going to be partnering with organizations at their events--we have events planned in New York, Los Angeles, London and maybe Toronto and Chicago--and this will be a great way to garner attention and get people engaged.
Having done "Honor Diaries," where do you see the notion of honor-based violence against women going in the future? On the one hand, as you point out in the film, such violence is beginning to spread further around the world as believers in that approach move to other lands. On the other hand, there is now more public awareness of it and that, combined with events ranging from the Arab Spring uprising to Malala Yousafzai being shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize for standing up for her rights at the near-cost of her life, suggests that the tide is turning against it.
I am cautiously optimistic.I think that the women's rights movement in the last 100 years has had slow but steady progress forward and hopefully it will be steady progress for women's rights around the world. You brought up Malala Yousafzai and to me, that is a great indication that people the world over can feel that the story of a young girl in Pakistan resonates with them. The fact that this story had such an impact around the world means that people are paying more attention to women's rights and particularly women's rights in the Middle East and the Muslim world. That gives me hope because I think that the more that people pay attention, the more that it is viewed as a global issue and not just a local issue. In that sense, I am cautiously optimistic and I think, again with the message of Malala and other women's rights films that preceded us like "Girl Rising," it really is an indication that people want to break the silence and talk about the issues and feel committed to helping women around the world.