A very honorable film

‘Honor Diaries’ puts women’s rights on the big screen.

Paula Kweskin with activist and physician Dr. Qanta Ahmed, who is featured in ‘Honor Diaries’ and was the keynote speaker at the films debut in Jerusalem earlier this year. (photo credit: 32 THE JERUSALEM REPORT APRIL 21, 2014 MARKETPLACE SHLOMO MAITAL IN CHEN LEOPOLD / FLASH 90)
Paula Kweskin with activist and physician Dr. Qanta Ahmed, who is featured in ‘Honor Diaries’ and was the keynote speaker at the films debut in Jerusalem earlier this year.
‘Women’s rights should always take center stage,” says Paula Kweskin, a human rights activist and lawyer who produced and wrote the film Honor Diaries.
The film – which exposes, sometimes in horrifying detail, the abuses perpetrated against women in the name of family honor all over the world – was recently screened in Jerusalem and is available on iTunes.
Kweskin, who immigrated to Israel from North Carolina a few years ago and is studying for a master’s in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, got the idea for the film during the tumult of the Arab Spring. “All the revolutions – in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries, women were among the first to go out and start protesting for change in their countries. I thought it might be a watershed moment for women and women’s rights. I thought they might use this moment to shake off the patriarchal systems.”
She was disappointed when the reverse turned out to be true. “In Egypt, for example, before the revolution, 12 percent of the politicians were women. After the revolution, it was 2 percent.”
Although she continued to work as a researcher, the negative trends in almost every area of the issues that affected women disturbed her.
“I spoke to a lot of women. The issue was taking different forms. But there were a lot of events that were pointing to an overarching theme – the honor system, where men punish women for acts that the men see as dishonoring their family or their community.”
She cites perhaps the most famous example: schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen whom the Taliban shot because she spoke out for the rights of girls to get an education.
“They tried to kill her because they think it’s not appropriate for a girl to get an education,” says Kweskin. “This case drew worldwide outrage, but it’s not an isolated incident, it’s part of a systemic effort to silence women and make them less powerful. There were a lot of events that pointed to an overarching theme, which I would argue is the honor system.”
Much of the work that Kweskin and the Honor Diaries team have done is to consolidate masses of statistics on violence (including female genital mutilation), and coercion of women across many countries and cultures.
“The statistics are incredibly alarming,” she says. She defines honor violence as “violence against women who are accused of dishonoring their family,” but notes that this violence can take many forms.
According to the UN, over 5,000 honor killings are reported each year, although Kweskin points out that experts feel the actual number may be considerably higher, especially in rural areas that have little law enforcement.
Another aspect of this violence is forced marriages, especially of children.
Among the many worrisome findings is that 60 million girls have been forced to become child brides, according to the UN. Also according to the UN, 6,000 girls and women suffer genital mutilation every day.
Kweskin and the activists in the film emphasize that this violence is often perpetrated with tacit or actual government approval. In some countries, it is actually legal, while in others, it is technically illegal but authorities do not make serious attempts to prosecute the offenders.
“There’s a law up for discussion in Iraq that would severely limit the way a woman could advocate for herself,” says Kweskin. “Women’s rights are being pushed backward in Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and other places.”
She says that her personal motto, and one that many of the interviewees in the film paraphrase, is “Louis Brandeis’s saying, ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant.’”
Another troubling fact that comes up in Honor Diaries is that this kind of violence against women is not limited to Third World countries.
According to the BBC, there are 3,000 honor attacks (which do not necessarily lead to death) in the UK each year, and these crimes occur in the US as well.
For Kweskin, uncovering all these facts was a wakeup call. “I was young in my career and doing human rights work and feeling discouraged. I’d write these reports and feel that they were just landing in some UN post office box in Geneva and that nothing would happen with them.”
As she amassed this data on human-rights abuses, she began thinking of a new way to get these facts to the public. “I realized that film is an amazing medium through which to effect change. It’s got images plus music, which really reaches and moves people. Plus it would be a way for people not just to learn about the abuses, but to meet the activists who are fighting for women.”
So, still inspired by the Arab Spring, she began seeking out women’s rights activists all over the world. “I went on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs from all over the world, and I started getting in touch with the activists through the Internet.”
Since these activists had already put themselves in the public eye – a risky move that earned them death threats – they were eager to speak to Kweskin.
While it might sound incredibly bleak to watch women activists speaking about honor-based violence, the women she chose to put on camera are extraordinary in every sense of the world. While much of the movie consists of interviews with them or a filmed discussion among them, they are the most vibrant and charismatic talking heads ever captured on film, defying all stereotypes.
One of the first of the many extraordinary women she contacted was Jasvinder Sanghera. A survivor of a forced marriage from a religious Sikh family, she is an author and the founder and CEO of Karma Nirvana – a UK-based helpline to support victims of forced marriage and honor-based domestic violence.
Among the other activists whom Kweskin approached – and who participated in a salon in which they discussed the issues together – were Pakistan- born Raheel Raza, a Canadian-based women’s rights activist and author (her book is called Their Jihad... Not My Jihad), as well as the president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow; Raquel Saraswati, a Muslim-American women’s rights activist; Fahima Hashim, director of the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre in Sudan; and Nazanin Afshim-Jam, the Iranian born, Canada-based president and co-founder of Stop Child Executions, who is also an author and former Miss World Canada.
Honor Diaries presents these women not only as advocates, but as people. We get to see Saraswati praying and adjusting her hijab, and Raza walking with her husband and talking to her grown sons, who are understandably worried about her safety.
Experts are also interviewed in the film, among them Dr. Qanta Ahmed – a US-based physician and author of In the Land of Invisible Women, which recounts her experiences as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. She attended the screening of Honor Diaries in Jerusalem as the keynote speaker. Other experts who participated in the film were Ayaan Hirsi Ali – the Somali-born Dutch human-rights activist and former Dutch Parliament member who founded the AHA Foundation to safeguard women’s rights – and Sherizaan Minwalla, the former director of legal and social services for the Tahirih Justice Center.
“I thought there would be a disconnect because we come from different backgrounds and cultures, but I feel very close to them and admire them,” says Kweskin. Even after all the time they have worked together, “I still put them on a pedestal,” she admits.
While she notes that there are women’s rights issues in Israel – such as the divorce laws that give men disproportionate power, and the routine harassment of women who do not follow ultra-Orthodox norms of dress in some neighborhoods – she feels it is important to keep the problems in perspective.
“There is an engagement of public debate on these issues here,” she notes. “For every example in which it seems a woman is being oppressed, there is an example of a woman in the forefront of public life. We have to approach women’s rights problems with nuance, otherwise we lose the forest for the trees.”
It’s important to her that many of the activists in the film are Muslim, both secular and religiously observant. While the vast majority of the honor violence that the activists criticize takes place in Muslim society, Kweskin is adamant that the film is not anti-Muslim.
“Most of the activists in the film are Muslim,” she says, pointing out that their involvement shows a different face of Islam.
To her dismay, she has found that “people [in the West] sometimes look the other way for fear of being politically incorrect, culturally insensitive or whatever the word might be.”
But she and the women in Honor Diaries see it differently.
“We’re talking about murdering women because they’re not behaving or dressing a certain way or have a Facebook account or look at a boy,” she says. “We really can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to human rights abuses.” 
For more information on the film or to host a screening: www.honordiaries.com.