THE HONOR DIARIES ROAD SHOW – not just a movie but a movement!

I started in Washington at the National Press Club

where there was a press conference on Tuesday 11 March at 12:30pm. It was well attended. We showed a 10min clip from the documentary Honor Diaries and then took Q & A. Among the panelists were Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky who has introduced the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAVA), a bill to create a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women and girls abroad. This bill would give the U.S. State Department new tools ranging from health programs and survivor services to legal reforms in order to promote economic opportunities and education for women.  IVAWA would also increase humanitarian funding and update mechanisms for responding to emergency outbreaks of violence against women and girls.

FGM survivor and activist Jaha Dukureh, flew from Atlanta to take part in the panel and said Honor Diaries gave her the courage to speak out against forced marriage and FGM, both traumas she has experienced. Manda spoke about the reality of gender apartheid not being addressed by the global communities and her work with Iranian women. Kiersten Stewart of Futures Without Violence spoke about the work being done by her group for women in distress.Among the media who attended was a young Pakistani woman from Voice of America. She taped the entire program and asked extensive questions of all participants. She kept me for last and said to me that she has waited all her life for someone Muslim to address these issues.

This is what I said in my talk :

Good morning. My name is Raheel Raza. I am the president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow. And I am one of the women who chose to make her voice heard in Honor Diaries. In Jan 2006, a young Kurdish girl living in the UK, Banaz Mahmud was strangled to death in an honour killing – the collaborators were her father, uncle and 3 cousins

In the months before her murder, Banaz went to the authorities more than once, to report the threats and she desperately asked “what can you do for me?” The authorities did not take action untill it was too late. I ask you – is it too late for us to take action now?

I speak out for Banaz and hundreds of others like her. I speak out because culture is no excuse for abuse. I speak out because in North America there is not enough awareness on the issue of honor violence. I speak out because forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and honor killings have no place in any society…in any country…anywhere in the world…especially in the 21st C

In the last two and a half decades—it’s estimated that 125 million women and girls have suffered female genital mutilation, also known as FGM. This is an atrocity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes 150,000 to 200,000 American girls are at risk of FGM. It happens when families take their daughters abroad to have the procedure performed…a horrific practice with the distasteful name of “vacation cuttings.” And it happens here in this country…behind closed doors. As a society we don’t talk about it so it remains largely hidden, and not reported in the US media.

At the same time, against the backdrop of marriage equality…1,500 girls are forced into marriage in the United States each year. One of the reasons is also creeping sharia which has somehow got a green card to migrate to the US. But as we all know, statistics and numbers are easily forgotten. What we remember are stories. And that emphasizes the importance of Honor Diaries.

To make this film, Manda, seven other women from around the world and I came together to tell our stories. Stories of running away to avoid forced marriages…Stories of mothers who were the chief perpetrators of violence and abuse…Stories of sisters who set themselves on fire to avoid remaining in abusive marriages…Stories of things that should not occur, or be pushed under the rug in any society or any culture anywhere in the world.

But yet they do. It’s difficult for those of us living in a secular democracy to understand that what you see in Honor Diaries, is the norm in some countries.

For example countries like Iran and S.A. think that by locking away 50% of their population which are their women – they’ve found a solution to women’s rights! That influence is now coming to North America on the back of stealth jihad.

I’ve committed my adult life to speaking out against the practice of honor violence because I grew up in a culture where girls were supposed to be seen and not heard – so I decided that I must be a voice for the voiceless and act for those who are shackled by tribal customs and norms. Our aim is to expose, educate and eradicate.

Yet to succeed in this challenge, we will need others to help us tell our stories. And we will need many more than nine women to find the courage to come forward and speak out.

I emphasize courage…because it must be understood, that we speak out at the risk of harm and even the risk of death. One such courageous young woman is Fahma Mohamed

Fahma recently created a petition to begin a FGM awareness campaign in UK schools. Her heroic efforts gained the attention of UK education Minister Michael Gove and the House of Commons. Couple of weeks ago, Gove agreed to meet Fahma’s demands and every teacher in UK will be trained how to recognize girls at the risk of FGM. Like Fahma, we must speak out because not doing so would be a far worse alternative

Similar to other documentaries, Honor Diaries is groundbreaking in its exposure of a dark side of society. But what is truly groundbreaking here is those who expose the atrocities are those who have been silenced for centuries. As a world community, we’ve wiped out diseases, we’ve put men on the moon, we’ve created an interconnected global society. But we have yet to establish equality for women. So long as honor violence persists in our world no woman is truly free.

– x –

On a personal note, for me there are always signs! On the train from the hotel to downtown Washington, I was frantic for time as I was running late, so a woman came and sat in front of me and I randomly asked her which would be the best station to exit to go to the Press Club. She told me and we got talking – was I amazed to discover that she worked with Voice of America and had been to Pakistan! Then as I was leaving the press club I met another woman in the elevator who I had met at a conference earlier in the year and who does work on women’s issues so I was able to hand her a DVD of Honor Diaries.

Nothing in life is a coincidence.

Next was an amazing Amtrack train ride from Washington to New York with Paula, the Producer and now good friend. Three and a half hours passed quickly with chatting and emailing. New York is well…..New York – buzzing with activity, full of spirit and always alive and awake. Our hotel was in the heart of Manhattan and we met up with Zainab Khan, a participant in the film, who has been doing media and interviews and flew in from Chicago to attend. I took a nap while the younger girls went shopping. Dr. Ida Lichter, a friend and activist from Australia was visiting New York and she joined us all for a girly dinner at a restaurant where we had an amazing night with yummy food and loads of chatter. My craving for curry was fulfilled..

Thursday morning we all pulled upto the Center UN Church Chapel across from the UN Plaza for our event. It was standing room only (one count said 300+ people) from all walks of life. The diversity in the room was a sight for sore eyes.

After a few technical difficulties with the sound, we got started with panel introductions and short talks. Then the audience saw a 30 min version of the film and I could hear the deep breaths in the room.

The Q & A part of this session was the most raucous that I’ve seen. Raquel from the film was on the panel with Paula and I. One woman asked about Western feminist groups, there was a lot of discussion around whether these issues are religious or cultural. A woman in a hijab from a Seminary said that Muslims need to re-interpret the Quran as its being mis-used for misogyny. Another woman from Kashmir spoke about the plight of Kashmiri women and girls who are being abused regularly but don’t want to talk about the issues. There was a comment from a progressive Muslim group that the film is biased and does not address work being done by such groups or invite them to the screenings. I answered this question by saying that everyone is invited – its their choice to attend or not. I have sent invitations to almost 250 people on my list, all Muslims. Furthermore if Muslim women groups had been successful, then the issues mentioned in the film would be eradicated and not growing and being imported into North America. Many women’s groups don;t want to touch issues they consider political or controversial.

Tinatin Khidasheli for sagarejo, member of Parliament, Republican Party, Georgia spoke about the problems that emerge when communities are ghettoized.

Despite the time restraints many young and older women signed up to make Honor Diaries a movement in their communities.

Later that night I flew from JFK to Geneva but I had to spend four hours at JFK airport so I discovered the best way to do this is use their mini-spa! It was refreshing. Landed in Geneva on Friday morning and went straight to the UN – a good 36 hours later, I was sleepy and fading so decided to call it a day. The Serpentine bar in the UN building where we have our meetings and brainstorming is being refurbished but we found a spot to meet and catch up. Most of the day was spent giving out invitations to our screening of Honor Diaries on Monday. On Sunday I cook Pakistani food for Team Geneva and then back to work.

As I write, I am informed that Honor Diaries has been screened in Colleges in Australia, in UK and in other parts of the world. It is heartwarming to know that women will not be silenced any more and that we are making a difference.