On Perceptions of Honour, “Islamophobia,” And Honour Diaries


Honour your daughters, they are human beings like your sons. And educate them, and you will have wonderful daughters, wonderful sisters and you will have a peaceful and prosperous society. Trust them, honour them and educate them. We have proverbs that say: As the father, so the son. Why not as the father, so the daughter?

The above quote was emotionally said by Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, in a recent gathering at the Oxford Union, where he emphasized the importance of treating daughters the same way as we would treat our sons —honouring them and ensuring that they have, and will lead, a good life by allowing them access to education. And as a Pashtun who clearly prides, encourages and continuously supports his daughter’s achievements, there is no doubt that Yousafzai’s perception of honour stems from the 5000+ old code of the Pashtuns known as Pashtunwali, in which Nang, meaning honour and Namus, which specifically refers to honouring women, in the Pashto language, are main tenants that all Pashtuns must abide by. Nang/Namus obligates Pashtuns to not only protect women from harm’s way, but also their whole family, ensuring their individuality and independence, all the while maintaining cultural norms and beliefs. And, though, Yousafzai’s perception of honour is ideal and should, in fact, be normalized — across all cultures and societies worldwide — it is not the case, unfortunately.

The term honour, by itself, is quite ambiguous in that it allows people — individuals — to define and interpret it any way they want, insofar ascribing it as intrinsic to their cultures and even religions. What one culture and/or society perceives as honourable may not necessarily be the same case for other cultures and/or societies. And while the intent behind these various perceptions of honour are the same, the action in which they are conceded are not. This is where it becomes problematic. And dangerous. Especially when that honour is at the cost of someone’s life — usually a female — where disturbingly enough, killing in the name of honour, or more specifically “honour-killing,” is not only seen as the norm but is in fact promoted and encouraged.

It must be understood that honour killings are not a recent phenomenon; rather, it is quite an old practice — centuries old, in fact — that is adamantly practiced in many societies across the world, prominently within South-and Central-Asia and the Middle East. It is a crime of deep emotional distress and trauma, gratifying only those who enforce and practice it. It is also imperative to note that honour killings are not exclusive to the east, as honour killings were quite notorious in the west as well, especially during the early Roman Empire (200 B.C.E. – 180 C.E.). Under the Roman law, during that time, the father in the household possessed a patria potestad, a Spanish term that literally means “authority of the father,” where  he had  the absolute power to control the life and death of his wife and children. Further, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (Vol. IV, p. 504), he writes:

The majesty of a parent was armed with the power of life and death; and the examples of such bloody executions, which were sometimes praised and never punished, may be traced in the annals of Rome beyond the times of Pompey and Augustus. Neither age, nor rank, nor the consular officer, nor the honours of a triumph, could exempt the most illustrious citizen from the bonds of filial subjection; his own descendents were included in the family of their common ancestor; and the claims of adoption were not less sacred or less rigorous than those of nature.’

However, honour-based killings were eradicated over time when Rome abolished the patria protestad and replaced it with the Code of Justinian (A.D. 529-565). And ever since the adoption of the Justinian Code, a father who kills, or even attempts to kill, his wife or children is found guilty of homicide; this rule or law has since been strongly imposed throughout the western world.

In the east, however, honour killings have been and are still quite rampant. And, sadly, there is nothing that is being done in order to eradicate it. As a matter of fact, it is buttressed in the countries in which it is practiced; for example, in 2008, a politician and law-maker from Pakistan by the name of Israr Ullah Zehri blatantly professed the following:

These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them. Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid.

As a result, killings continue to occur as a result of daughters refusing the parents’ decision to marry a man of their choice, or when young women are found to have had relationships (intimate or otherwise) outside of wedlock, or incidents where the rape of a woman brings about so much shame and dishonour that the family ends up murdering the woman in order to “save face.”

However, despite the buttress that honour-based killings receive, and keep receiving, in many parts of the world, I was very hopeful when I learned about ‘Honour Diaries‘ — the award-winning, extremely poignant documentary about honour violence against women and girls in the east, more specifically, the Muslim east. I was hopeful because action was finally being taken and people’s — women’s — voices were finally being heard. The film features nine exceptionally brave women who bore first-hand witness to the atrocities and hardships that women suffer in Muslim-majority societies with regards to honour, especially at the hands of their male relatives; be it their fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, or male cousins. The film centers around three major crimes; these include forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation (FGM), and its main aim is to serve as a platform to not only bring honour violence against women to light, but to also inspire others (women and men alike) to speak out and engage in meaningful dialogue, so that sound solutions may materialize to make a positive difference. And while the film was well-received and appreciated by those who understood its true purpose, there were however others who completely misconstrued it, going so far as labelling it “anti-Islamic,” or more specifically, “Islamophobic,” and further indicting the producers of the film for singling out and attacking Muslims, making it appear as if honour violence is a “Muslim problem,” and hence only limited to the Muslim world.

Blatant backlashes against the film was particularly exacerbated by a so-called civil rights organization, the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), who displayed so much utter resentment towards the film that they went as far as having its screenings cancelled at a couple of universities; namely the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois. And if that wasn’t dire enough, they even convinced Brandeis University to rescind its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the Somali-born women’s rights activist, writer and politician, who is infamously known for her critical views on forced marriages, Islam and FGM. Of course, people like Ali do not need “honourary degrees” to merit their accomplishments, but the fact that Brandeis University pulled such a daft move goes to show how easily they get influenced, without truly understanding the bigger picture.

Nevertheless, the reasons for these backlashes are conspicuous in that CAIR and some Muslims felt massively offended and degraded by the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has made no secret of her resentment towards Islam, is one of the producers of the film, and also because the actual creators of the film is The Clarion Project (previously known as the “Clarion Fund”) — a non-profit organization that is known to produce films and publications highlighting the threat of “Radical Islam.” However, what some of these “offended”  Muslims fail to realize is that neither Ali’s nor The Clarion Project’s intentions are decadent, for their main aim is to shed light on the atrocities that exist in the Muslim world. Just because they criticize immoral acts, which clearly exist in Muslim-majority countries, does not mean that they have ill intentions towards all Muslims in general, nor does it imply their hatred or resentment towards the religion of Islam itself.

As for Ali herself, while it’s true that her views towards Islam are quite obstinate and radical, however, it does not necessitate to her being an “Islamophobe” — a term that, in my humble opinion, lacks every iota of meaning and credibility, because it’s simply a term used to censure and shy away from any and all forms of denunciation. Ali was purportedly born in Somalia and has herself been a victim of genital mutilation; she fled a forced marriage and ended up taking asylum in the Netherlands. And while there have been claims that her story is “false” and that she “made it all up,” I personally wouldn’t know, because the media is dishonest anyway and we shouldn’t believe every single thing we see or read in the media. However, regardless of whether her story is true or false, there must be a valid incentive for Ali’s bitterness and resentment towards the more radical version of Islam.

Besides, Honour Diaries is not about Ali’s personal life nor is it about The Clarion Project and what their supposed “intentions” are. Honour Diaries is about real women, who happen to be Muslim, that are suffering from crimes that are distressingly accepted as norms in the society in which they reside. There is absolutely nothing “Islamophobic” about this film. None, whatsoever. Unfortunately, counterattacks against the film ranged from overly emotional and angry blogs/articles to social media, where some Muslims on Twitter, especially, created a rather insolent hashtag titled “#DisHonorDiaries” to further express their acrimony.

Nevertheless, I have to agree with Sam Harris’ take on the whole Islamophobia label, when he said the following, in response to Glenn Greenwald, who accused him of being an “Islamophobe”:

There is no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’. This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.

Further, I was very fortunate to speak to the very lovely and talented Zainab Zeb Khan, one of the nine extremely courageous human rights advocates, who participated in the film. I asked her about her thoughts on the negativity and backlash that the film has been receiving thus far from not only Muslim organizations but fellow Muslims as well, and this is what she had to say:

I’m not denying that hate and racism exists in our world. It is a serious issue, and under no means should any group be targeted due to their religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or skin color. Prejudices against Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs all exist, along with other forms of awful hate, predisposed notions, racism, and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, ‘Islamophobia’ is used to silence every source of criticism, questioning, or speaking out about relevant issues that are human rights abuses. This term deflects and deters from critical work that must be done to ensure that violence and harm is not inflicted upon any human being in the name of religion or culture. Sadly, this term and its proponents attempt to shut down dialogue.  They manipulate the term and its implications in order to distract from the real issues. I’m wondering what they are so afraid of talking about?

There has to be a middle ground on which to criticize obvious injustice without being condemned for it. What has happened with the term ‘Islamaphobia’ is that you’re essentially left to be confined to think in categorized terms of black and white, or left and right. This promotes exclusion in voicing any concern about very relevant issues that affect the rights of women and girls and perpetuates abuse in the name of zealous religious, cultural, and social ideologies.

Zainab Zeb Khan hails from Pakistan and Afghanistan and is not only a human rights activist, but also an artist and a licensed clinical therapist. She has worked with survivors of domestic violence, providing therapy and coping mechanisms, primarily to women in the South Asian community. Her participation in the Honour Diaries is thus a very important one as she, a Muslim woman herself, belongs to a society in which honour killings and domestic violence are quite rampant. In fact, it is so rampant that she has taken it upon herself to raise as much awareness about it as possible. And her involvement in the Honour Dairies is one of many great initiatives.

I further asked her what she thought of the controversy that the film has been receiving thus far and her overall thoughts and experience of participating in the Honour Diaries, and this is what she told me:

Why is it controversial for me to say that we need to change the fact that there are women living under governments where their rights are  clearly not equal to their male counterparts? To me, this is advocacy for greater humanity, not controversy. What are we being defensive about when according to the World Economic Forum, 9 out of 10 countries with the highest level of gender disparity are Muslim majority countries? As a Muslim, that makes me concerned and advocate for the necessary steps to change the passage of laws and legislation that permit gender-based violence in the name of religion.

The controversy will begin by those who oppose the need for establishing universal human rights. When women do not have equal access and opportunities to resources for economic, social, and self autonomous decisions, we truly are not advancing in a direction for social progress.

There is no premise or validity in the illogical thought process behind saying that the message of the film is acceptable, but the “filmmakers” are questionable. Having been a part of this project for two years, I can say that the filmmakers and myself, along with the other women featured in Honour Diaries, have a unified goal in ending violence against women that is based on the skewed code of ‘honour’. The conversation that took place during the two day salon you see in the film could have gone in many directions; however, it is clear to see that our work addressing violence against women and gender disparity was the powerful common ground where we united together to take action. And I truly believe that this will help build a coalition of other organizations, advocates that are both men and women, to take a stand and say that honour-based violence is a tragic human rights disaster and must stop. The film-makers went through great lengths to help ensure that this film is fair, balanced, and truthful, and does not take a position on whether it’s culture or religion that’s at play. To be clear, this abuse is not sanctioned by any particular religion – a point that is clearly established in Honour Diaries.

Who made these rules and regulations on ethics, morality, and expression for a woman to be governed?

Why is it Islamophobic for me to think critically? To question the origin of a thought, message, or statute?

Why should I not question the source of where and why laws were passed to significantly regress some of the most advanced societies for women’s rights in Afghanistan and Iran. These countries tragically endured odious restrictions on women, which has impacted entire generations.

This film has provided a platform for liberal, progressive Muslims to take a stand and initiate action. This film has provided a voice for the women who have suffered honour-based violence to step up and take action by providing a comrade of support. This film has opened doors for feminists, academics, social and political leaders to utilize their empowerment to help facilitate change for one of the largest human rights issues going on in the world today.

I would re-do this film all over again, but with even more voice and power than I initially went in with due to two more years of intense, hands-on global work that I have been involved with. As you state again, the fellow Muslims you speak of do not represent the large population of Muslims that truly do want change and challenge the skewed, fundamental ideologies that have plagued governments and legislative laws globally. The regression of women’s rights in areas of this world are nothing short of a tragedy. History is always a learning lesson.

I’m not okay with the status quo. And that’s what keeps me going. When I hear a young Afghan child compare her life to that of a goat, I really cannot stop my work because a few feathers on the other side have been ruffled. If they have, so be it. I will continue my work to help others.”

So, yes, there is no “agenda” or “ulterior motives” behind the making of Honour Diaries. It is a film that sheds light on the many truths and evils that exist in this world. And if that is offensive, then perhaps it’s time that people stopped being overly sensitive and personalizing everything they read or see in the media, especially when they haven’t watched the film for themselves. Don’t fall so foolishly for the hatred you see/read on the Internet/social media without finding out for yourselves what it is exactly that you are hating on. Go and actually watch the film; see for yourselves what people could possibly despise in this film, besides the despicable and inhumane treatment of women, which is done time and time again, all in the name of this so-called “honour.”

Besides, Khan’s powerful message above sincerely resonates. And not only with me, but with so many others who feel the same way and truly understand the deeply troubling issues that women, in Muslim-majority societies, face on a daily basis. Again, it has absolutely nothing to do with “Islamophobia” or singling out/targeting Muslims; however, it just so happens that a majority of these crimes are carried out, accepted and encouraged in such societies. And when a film is produced to shed light on the atrocities that exist in that part of the world, rather than attack and take offense, we need to instead be empathetic and find ways to make matters better. Also, rather than getting offended, accusatory and defensive, we should instead aim to reach out to other fellow women (Muslim and non-Muslim alike), all over, so that we can hold hands and work together, in solidarity, all the while keeping our differences aside, in order to empower and create a positive impact.

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