“Honour”-based violence occurs worldwide, across cultures and religions. Meaghan Seymour checks in with Paula Kweskin on her first documentary featuring women’s rights activists from around the world.
Honor Diaries is an upcoming documentary film that captures nine prominent women’s rights activists who come together to engage in a discussion spanning several days. Their roundtable-style, open, and emotionally charged talks circle around the atrocities of “honour”-based violence and abuse faced by women in Muslim-majority societies. Their talks aim not only to raise awareness about these issues, but also to inspire viewers to action.
I was able to get a sneak preview of the film before its official release later this month, as well as the opportunity to speak with producer Paula Kweskin. We spoke about her involvement in the film, its role in human rights advocacy, and what more could be done to educate communities about ending the horrific crimes that are perpetrated against women, often in the name of culture or religion.
A trained Israeli-American human rights lawyer, Paula was eager to get on board when she heard of the opportunity to become involved with a project bringing like-minded and dedicated women’s rights activists together. Having wanted to extend her legal career into the realm of advocacy, and believing that film is an incredibly powerful medium for getting a message across, her first film, Honor Diaries, was the perfect opportunity.
What message does she hope to get across? In her own words, Paula relays to me:
“It’s really a passion of mine to empower and strengthen marginalised women, and women who have suffered either violence or abuse, or women who have experience violence and abuse in conflict zones as well. But I certainly think it’s important for all women to be empowered, whether they live in peaceful times [or not] and I think it’s really important that women recognise their unique selves, that they’re able to use their voices to promote what they believe in.”
Yet while the women who appear in the film are a mix of faiths, or choose to not identify with any particular faith, I wondered if it seemed fair to frame the film in a “Muslim” context. I was, initially, equally troubled by the fact that the film was produced by several professionals who are not Muslims. In addition, its executive producer is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who to many Muslim women is a controversial figure. She speaks at different moments throughout the film, yet she doesn’t appear in any of the intimate discussions with the other activists.
However, the film also hopes to inspire viewers from outside Muslim societies with a sense of responsibility to combat “honour”-based violence. And it is defiantly argued by the women in the film that the inaction based on excuses of political correctness or cultural sensitivities actually do more harm, by helping to justify the actions of the perpetrators of the crime. In other words, as Paula put it to me, we are all responsible, despite our backgrounds or religions, for protecting and ensuring the rights set out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the slogan of the film reads, “Culture is No Excuse for Abuse”.
Admittedly, as skeptical as I was after viewing the film’s trailer, assuming that Honor Diaries would turn out to be another run-of-the-mill anti-Muslim film, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, there were a few times when clips of a woman being lashed or stoned were interjected through the film, reminiscent of a lot of the negative media portrayals of Muslims. On the other hand, if they happen on such a large scale as statistics[i] show, is it fair to shy away from them?
The production crew, to their credit, did make a point to capture the activists speaking about the need to distinguish between cultural practices and religion. They were also recorded clearly and distinctly voicing the fact that “honour”-based violence is rather a critical global issue that urgently needs to be confronted, and is not an issue exclusively restricted to Muslims.
In discussing Honor Diaries with me, Paula also stresses what was evidently clear in the film, and lacking in other documentaries with a similar theme:
“We have made serious efforts to make sure that women who are strong in their Islamic faith were able to speak openly and honestly about their commitment to their religion. Raquel Saraswati and Raheel Raza are great examples of strong and proud Muslim women who are leaders in their community and their commitment to women’s rights is unparalleled.”
Not only does outspoken activist Raquel Saraswati, a former Aquila Style contributor, truly embody strong leadership, but as a Muslim who wears the hijab, her passionate appearance certainly breaks down the stereotypes of the veiled Muslim woman as “submissive”. According to Paula, breaking down those stereotypes was a goal she hoped would be achieved through the film.
Of course, I was curious as to whether working alongside activists who are either a part of, or have strong connections to, Muslim societies provided Paula with a new perspective on how to approach these issues within this particular context.
In a captivating scene, one of the activists recounts how she, by merely presenting her uncle with a few informative pamphlets on the harmful risks linked to female genital mutilation (FGM), was able to put an end to the tradition that had been upheld by the women in her family for decades. For Paula, this signified not only how important education and fact presentation can be, but when educating women about their rights, it is just as vital to educate men about the harmful practices that they may silently condone.
“Women are also the maintainers of violence. It’s hard, but I have to be honest with myself that women are sometimes the ones committing the crime.”
While the film sets out to raise awareness about the issues, I wondered what difference Honor Diaries would make in light of the fact that, thanks to widely-covered news stories and the work of many non-governmental organisations and human rights monitoring groups, Muslim societies are often already popularly stereotyped or associated with “honour”-based violence.
“The women in Honor Diaries felt strongly that their voices should be heard, too. And so this film gives the women in this film a platform to speak out against violence and inequality directed at them as women, and against the women they speak for.”
Honor Diaries premiers at the Chicago Film Festival on October 13. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion which includes Paula Kweskin and cast member Raheel Raza, among others. Learn more at the Honor Diaries website