Written by Mehlaqa Samdani
Honor killings, domestic abuse, forced marriages and female genital mutilation as practiced in Muslim societies and communities are just some of the issues raised in the recently released documentary “Honor Diaries.” It features Muslim activists from around the world working to advance gender empowerment within their respective communities. What, then, is all the furor about? What caused one Muslim group to cancel screening of the film on a university campus? And what would have been a better way to respond?
The real controversy surrounding the film is not so much the content of the film as the organization behind it—the Clarion Project. Rabia Chaudry, a renowned blogger and Muslim activist, wrote a scathing article (The #DisHonor Diaries) documenting the Clarion Project’s previous attempts to demonize Muslims and Islam through films such as ‘Obsession’and ‘The Third Jihad’, and outlines the group’s funding by “foundations who have committed millions to the dissemination of inflammatory and false information about Islam and Muslims.”
Chaudry rightly points out that the film’s target audience is primarily the West, not Muslim societies where change needs to occur. Hence, it would seem the agenda of the filmmakers is more to spread propaganda than bring about effective societal change.
Chaudry goes on to say that just as with ABC’s controversial Alice in Arabia pilot that was recently cancelled due to pressure by Muslim groups, the crux of the issue is “who has control over telling our stories.”
While it is difficult to claim a monopoly over who gets to tell their stories–both well-meaning and insidious groups from non-Muslim quarters will inevitably take up these issues for a variety of reasons—Muslim groups must amplify their voices and articulate their own narratives. And they must do so in ways that are effective and strategic–censorship or clamping down on discussion is neither.
Last Thursday, CAIR (Council for American-Islamic Relations) succeeded in canceling a screening of the Honor Diaries at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. While it is understandable that CAIR had concerns surrounding the dubious intentions of the Clarion Project and not the issues the film raises, I would contend that this was not the best way to approach the issue.
Instead, the screening should have been used as an opportunity to talk about a host of issues that are important and need to be addressed. For instance, what is the state of gender relations in the Muslim world and what political, social, historical and religious factors have contributed to the fact that the ten countries with the highest gender gaps are all Muslim-majority countries? Why is there a glaring gap between the treatment of women at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (who in many ways revolutionized gender relations) and the way women in the Muslim world are treated today?
Some would argue that by participating in the film’s screenings, Muslims groups would inadvertently be advancing the filmmakers’ agendas. I would argue that by not attending these events, the Muslim community would lose the opportunity to introduce nuance and sophistication to sensationalized discourse that groups like the Clarion Project seek to engender.
It is only through participation in these discussions that Muslim activists can critique Western perspectives with respect to Muslim women—does the West have a savior complex and what are the colonial roots of western interest in the plight of Muslim women? Why don’t discussion of women’s rights in the Muslim world include questions of the West’s complicity in undermining those rights? How are local women’s groups and movements affected when their agendas are adopted by international organizations—it is true that some are helped but if associated with anti-Islamic groups such as the Clarion Project, this can also end up undermining their legitimate struggles at home. And finally, what is a more constructive way for organizations in the West to engage these issues?
By barring these discussions altogether, the Muslim community comes across as being defensive, in denial of the issues that afflict the Muslim world in general, and guilty of violating the first amendment. The Muslim community’s collective response should be one of engagement, not estrangement.