“Honour killing” is a centuries-old practice affecting primarily Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women. According to Human Rights Watch, it goes across cultures and religions, and its dynamics are comparable to those behind dowry deaths and crimes of passion. Now there is a gruesome twist: young men have been killed by their families after declaring their homosexuality. It is a complex issue, requiring a multifaceted approach.
Unfortunately, the recent film Honor Diaries may do more harm than good. It purports “to inspire viewers to learn more about issues facing women in Muslim-majority societies, and to act for change” while featuring advocates with “connections to Muslim-majority societies.” The terrible scourge of violence against women is conflated as a “Muslim” problem, thus setting the film’s simple premise: honour killings bad. Western civilization good. Muslims kill for honour. Muslims bad.
Not surprisingly, its backers include a who’s-who of Islamophobes, starting with the Clarion Project (formerly the Clarion Fund). The Centre for American Progress, a U.S-based think tank, investigated the Project’s $40-millon funding. In its 2011 report “Fear Inc.,” CAP described the Clarion Project’s donors as the “lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America” and the Project’s goal as the “spread deliberately misleading messages about Islam and Muslims.” The Project’s small core of self-styled “experts” spews anti-Muslim rhetoric, most prominently on Fox News. The Project has produced fear-mongering films such as Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus and Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. Its recent production, Iranium, pushes the “bomb Iran” envelope.
Iranium’s director, Alex Traimen, is also a producer and writer of Honor Diaries. He just happens to live in Beit-El, an illegal Israeli settlement encroaching upon Ramallaah in the West Bank whose settlers were described in a recent Globe and Mail report as “obstacles to Middle East peace.”
The anti-Islam sentiments of executive producer Ayaan Hirsi Ali are well-known. Asked in 2007 if she opposed radical Islam, she replied: “no. Islam, period. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, ‘This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” Brandeis University rescinded an honorary doctorate that it was to bestow on Ms. Ali this spring on the grounds that “certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” The university had initially been unaware of her strident anti-Islam position.
A fierce backlash has erupted in the twittersphere against the film (using the hashtag #dishonordiaries), spearheaded by Muslim activists and imams who work to combat violence against women. They see the shameless exploitation of women’s deaths to advance an anti-Muslim agenda. There is widespread doubt that the filmmakers actually care about the lives of women at risk.
For those who want to help eliminate “honour”-based violence (HBV), a good place to start is through in-depth research about the issue. Next is consultation with those who have first-hand expertise in the field and credibility with affected communities. Aruna Papp, a South Asian Christian, has survived the trauma of “shame”, and is one of this country’s leading experts. In London, Ont., the Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration recently launched the “Reclaim Honour Project” that “works to promote honour and prevent violence against girls and women through the support of the community.” In March, the Ottawa Police Service held a collaborative session with local communities to address HBV, with expert Rana Husseini. Ms. Husseini, a Jordanian-based journalist, has over twenty years’ experience in the field. She advised: “never denigrate a people’s faith or culture,” but rather, protect at-risk women, create safe spaces to raise the issue, and work patiently to change laws and attitudes. The absence of Ms. Husseini’s approach in Honour Diaries speaks volumes.
We can look to the recent successes against female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa as an example of how to approach centuries-rooted traditions. The key drivers include community dialogue and education, health-based initiatives, alternative income for cutters, legislative reform, and the involvement of religious clergy whose moral authority has undercut cultural legitimacy of genital mutilation.
Religion is an ally against “honour” killings. Islamic scholars (both Sunni and Shia) have condemned this practice. Their voices need to be amplified, in order to remove any doubts about the immoral nature of this crime. They carry far more legitimacy than anti-Muslim propagandists. But then again, eradicating honour killings was never the goal of Honor Diaries.