'Honor Diaries': Breaking silence on violence or reinforcing stereotypes?

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Photo: flickr/Miquel Angel Pintanel Bassets

On International Women's Day 2014, the Clarion Project released its latest cinematic offering: Honor Diaries, which purports to be "the first film to break the silence on honor violence." The movie is staged as a "dialogue about gender inequality" between nine "courageous women's rights advocates with connections to Muslim-majority societies" (although one of the nine -- Jasvinder Sanghera -- is actually a Sikh woman of Indian origin from Britain).

Honor Diaries jams together a diverse array of patriarchal practices -- forced marriages in immigrant communities in Britain, the ban against women driving in Saudi Arabia, the "honour killing" of young women in Europe and North America, the enforcement of "shariah dress" in Sudan, the corporal punishment of women in Afghanistan, the cutting of women's genitals, the sexual assault of women during Arab Spring protests and the oppression of women in post-revolution Iran -- into a viscerally affecting parade of horrors.

Specificities of time and place are erased by sweeping claims about the situation of Muslim women. Many of the (very graphic) video clips included in the film don't even indicate where or when the abuses they depict occurred -- reinforcing the impression of a homogeneously violent and misogynistic "Muslim world."

Of course, all of the problems mentioned in Honor Diaries require serious attention. But is it appropriate or productive to analyze them as one, singular, distinctly Muslim phenomenon -- absolutely separate from other manifestations of patriarchy? After all, female genital cutting is not prevalent throughout the Muslim world, but is predominantly practised in sub-Saharan and Northeastern Africa, where it pre-dates the introduction of Islam. And the prohibition on female driving -- far from being a universal "Islamic" commandment -- is unique to Saudi Arabia.

As Monica Marks of Oxford University observes: "Asking why 'Islamic culture' oppresses women is as meaningless as asking why 'Christian culture' oppresses women. Women's lived realities in Christian-majority countries differ depending on the historical and socio-political contexts in which they live. What oppresses a woman in America differs from what oppresses her sisters in South Korea, Bolivia, Greece, Australia, or Zimbabwe."

Honor Diaries is about as useful as a film which conflates the global trafficking of Eastern European women, rape chants at North American universities, stiletto heels, the murder and abduction of Aboriginal women in Canada, deaths of American women from liposuction, the sexual proclivities of Silvio Berlusconigang-rapes in France, the forced sterilization of Roma women and the provocation defence in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States. Powerful as propaganda against "the West," perhaps -- but hardly helpful in producing deeper understanding.

Surely, any genuine attempt to address violence against Muslim women would involve analysis of the social, legal, economic, political and historical contexts in which gendered violence occurs. But context and nuance are conspicuously absent from Honor Diaries. Instead of contextualization, we get gross generalization; instead of understanding, stereotype. 

For example, the film informs viewers that Pakistani law permits lighter sentencing for men who murder or maim women. However, it fails to mention that leniency for such crimes has often been accorded "through the channel of 'grave and sudden provocation,' a (Western) principle introduced by the Pakistan Criminal Code of 1860." This mitigating provision was originally legislated by British colonizers, and was based on British law's own provocation defence. Without such basic knowledge of Pakistan's legal and social history, how can we legitimately claim to understand "honour-based violence" against women in Pakistan?

Honor Diaries cherry-picks and decontextualizes statistics to bolster its narrative of virtually uniform Muslim oppression of women.

For instance, the film cites the very low rate of female literacy in Afghanistan (12.6 per cent), without acknowledging that male literacy in the country is also below 50 per cent. Moreover, the film omits the fact that youth female literacy in Iran (which Honor Diaries portrays as a misogynistic hell) is 98.5 per cent -- just below male rates of 98.8 per cent.

Women in both Iran and Afghanistan confront deeply entrenched structures of patriarchy, but the statistics presented in Honor Diaries are misleading: the film fails to represent the significant educational (and other) barriers facing all individuals in Afghanistan, and neglects to explain why illiteracy is an indicator of women's oppression in Afghanistan but not in Iran.

Ultimately, Honour Diaries projects an image of an exceptionally and overwhelmingly misogynistic "Muslim world," which is juxtaposed against a "West" that guarantees women's freedom and equality.

Violence against women is presented as a problem imported onto Western shores by barbaric Eastern immigrants -- minimizing the severity and pervasiveness of gendered violence in North America and Europe. As the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente lamented in a piece about the film: "Most Western feminists are curiously silent about these issues [concerning violence against Muslim women]. It seems they'd rather spend their time warning about 'rape culture' and denouncing the misogyny, abuse and discrimination that permeate our society (or so they claim)."

However, as lawyer Pamela Cross points out in a report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, "Research does not indicate that there is any greater risk of violence for Muslim women than for women in other communities who are similarly socially located ... Everyone is harmed if we think of violence against women as the norm in some groups and as not existing in others." 

Blaming particular minority cultures for violence against women does nothing to explain or address the high rates of gendered violence in Canada -- a phenomenon manifestly not limited to any particular cultural or ethnic community. 

For instance: In 2011, 76 women were killed by an intimate partner; this averages one femicide every five days. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16 -- and only around ten per cent of all sexual assaults are ever reported to police. On any given night, 3300 women (and 3000 children) are forced to sleep in emergency shelters to escape domestic violence.

The claim that an excess of "political correctness" prevents adequate criticism of Muslim misogyny -- repeated by several of the film's protagonists -- also falls flat.

Take the Aqsa Parvez and Shafia murders (both in Canada), cited as instances of North America's escalating problem with "honour violence." The guilty parties in both cases were duly sentenced to life imprisonment, and no one argued that their cultural backgrounds justified the femicides. On the contrary -- the popular characterization of the murders as culturally motivated "honour killings" inspired greater excoriation of the perpetrators, not less.

Indeed, Status of Women Canada spent $1.7 million last fiscal year on projects investigating "honour crimes"; there have been a maximum of 13 murders described as "honour killings" since 2004 (and the application of the "honour" label to these femicides is extremely problematic). 

On the other hand, the government only allocated $335,000 to agencies dealing with violence against Aboriginal women; as of 2010, there were at least 582 known cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women in Canada (and the actual number of cases may be a couple of hundred higher).  

In other words, the Canadian government spent five times more money on "honour crimes" than on missing and murdered Aboriginal women last year: a problem tens of times larger.

Proponents of Honor Diaries have attempted to dismiss critics of the film as apologists for violent Muslim patriarchy. But we object to the film precisely because we are committed to addressing violence against women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. As a project which fosters misunderstanding and promotes stereotyping, Honor Diaries can only be described as counterproductive.

Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre. Khadijah Kanji is Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre. Dr Naila Butt is Executive Director of Social Services Network. Alia Hogben is Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Dr Salha Jeizan is Chair of the Federation of Muslim Women. Shahina Siddiqui is President and Executive Director of Islamic Social Services Association Canada.

Photo: flickr/Miquel Angel Pintanel Bassets

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