Religious Freedom Coalition, By Andrew Harrod, PhD. June 1, 2015:
“Women under the Islamic rules” are “slaves to a dictatorial, theocratic regime that does not consider them human,” states Iranian-American women’s rights activist Manda Zand Ervin in the documentary Honor Diaries. While Ervin decries that “Muslim women are being ignored” in their plight “by the whole world,” Honor Diaries, now entering an international screening campaign, gives voice to these often overlooked victims.
Jasvinder Sanghera, a British Sikh woman, opens the film with her personal history and indicates thereby that misogyny worldwide originates not just in Islamic culture. At age 14, her family kept her home for weeks until she agreed to a marriage already arranged when she was eight, similar to many of her six adolescent sisters forced to leave school and marry. One burned herself to death to escape a bad marriage in a culture where divorce is not honorable. Sanghera elaborated how she ran away from home at April 20 and April 23 Washington, DC, presentations of the film at Georgetown University’s Mortura Center and the Rayburn House Office Building respectively. Since this flight 35 years ago her family has disowned her and does not have any relations with her children.
Honor Diaries, however, focuses almost exclusively on Muslim females in examining what the Afghan-American women’s rights activist Zainab Khan describes as “one of the most alarming human rights issues in the world.” The film cites statistics such as the World Economic Forum’s listing of the ten countries worldwide with the worst gender disparity, nine of which are Muslim-majority. Canadian human rights activist and author Nazanin Afshin-Jam points particularly to the “gender apartheid” in her ancestral Iran, a country that became an “instant theocracy” in the 1979 Islamic Republic’s founding. Before the 1979 revolution, recounts her American colleague Nazie Eftekhari, Iranian women like her mother and grandmother were unveiled professionals, but after a “100 year journey forward…overnight they took that step back.”
Honor Diaries highlights specific abuses faced by Muslim females such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages. “These marriages are consummated through rape,” states Iraqi-American Sherizaan Minwalla of the Tahirih Justice Center. A Yemeni girl personifies this brutality by recounting her “husband” simply covering her screaming mouth during sex at the age of eight.
Such issues are not merely far away in Muslim-majority societies, but also affect free countries like the United States. Tahirih estimates as many as 1,500 forced marriages occur here annually and the Center for Disease Control considers 150,000-200,000 American girls at risk for FGM. “No doubt in my mind you have a big problem,” Sanghera states, but America’s “victims are hidden” (at the Mortura Center she discussed having already heard of forced marriage threats in America after only nine days here).
The women’s rights activists in Honor Diaries like the Pakistani-Canadian Raheel Raza discuss as well how they face hostility for addressing Islam’s women’s rights controversies. While calling “Islam…my spiritual journey,” she analyzes how “‘Islamophobia’ is a recent construct…to deflect any criticism of Islam and Muslims,” a “manufactured term…used to just silence people.” The American Muslim Raquel Saraswati, meanwhile, is “afraid all the time” in the face of physical threats, “but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be courageous.”
Similarly mentioning physical threats, Sanghera at the Mortura Center additionally cited canceled meetings during her American visit, amounting approximately to a “50/50” open/closed doors ratio. Indicative of this unwillingness to hear, the ubiquitous grandstanding Muslim gadfly Saba Ahmed left during the middle of Sanghera’s presentation and Honor Diaries extract screening. Raza at the Rayburn presentation also mentioned intimidation against her agenda of “expose, educate, and eradicate” from organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), but abuse victims appear at Honor Diaries screenings with thanks.
Saraswati in Honor Diaries raises a “very difficult question to answer” about the women’s rights abuses therein profiled, namely “is this Islam.” Pakistani-British Muslim Qanta Ahmed states that FGM, something that “does not appear in the Quran,” is “not advocated in Islam in any way, shape, or form,” yet overlooks various non-Quranic Islamic canons supporting FGM. The Iraqi-American Christian Juliana Taimoorazy notes that her coreligionists “did not adapt to honor killings” in their Iraqi Muslim surroundings, but Raza counters that these murders also exist, for example, among Indian Hindus and Sikhs.
Interviewed at Rayburn, the Sikh Sanghera also stated that the “experience of honor abuse is actually the same” among British Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh South Asian communities, yet noted other Islamic variations. In her experience the “absolutely barbaric” practice of FGM occurred in “predominately Muslim communities.” The United Kingdom’s Bangladeshi Muslims also exhibited a “higher prevalence” of marrying girls under the age of 10.
At the Rayburn presentation, though, Arizona police detective Christopher J. Boughey, an adviser to Honor Diaries and the AHA Foundation of former Muslim and film participant Ayaan Hirsi Ali, had a more singular focus on Islam. “All of these cases are almost identical,” he said of his work with honor killings, something that for him in North America had been a “completely Muslim experience,” he elaborated in an interview. These murders formed along with forced marriages and FGM a comprehensive “control situation” and “systematic breaking down of someone’s will.”
Amidst such bleak analysis of Islam’s treatment of women, Raza’s Rayburn interview offers cold comfort with her theological analysis. Questioned about support for FGM and child marriages in the canonical biography of Islam’s prophet Muhammad (hadith) and Islamic law (sharia), she responded that “I really don’t give that much precedence to hadith and sharia.” She dismissed much of this Islamic orthodoxy as “man-made created stuff for the benefit of the men” and argued that “there is so much garbage in hadiths” given their often contradictory and dubious nature. Abuses like FGM are “tribal practices that have existed long before Islam.”
For spiritual guidance on abuses of women “I go back to the word of God,” Islam’s “source and it is not in the source,” Raza declares with reference to the Quran, even though Quran 65:4 indirectly references child marriage. Contrary to almost all Quran translations, she asserts that female Quran interpreters like her find no support for wife-beating in Quran 4:34. Such interpretations come from the “mindset of the male elite who have been translating the Quran.” Referencing the Quran’s oft-(mis)quoted verse 5:32 (“whoever saves one—it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”), but not the following brutal verse 5:33, she proclaims that “I take the higher law.”
Honor Diaries is essential viewing for investigating Muslim misogyny and those brave women, both within and without Islam, who combat it on the basis of bitter personal knowledge. Yet the film at times contradicts itself and its feminist activists with what could be called pious hopes that all such abuse is an aberration from, and not anchored in, Islamic doctrine. Objective observers will have difficulty finding in Islamic canons Raza’s understanding of a merciful “God of all human beings.”
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.