Friday, April 17, 2015

What Honor Diaries Did to My Amazon

About a month ago, my algorithm for recommendations took a sharp turn. I was suddenly ordering books with titles like Gender and Violence in the Middle East,  Gender and Islam, and Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I found myself digging around in boxes in the basement for my college copy of Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil. I found myself confronting the question of how I, as a scholar of American women’s history moving into a position as coordinator of our Women and Gender Studies Program, should handle the problematics of staging a conversation here at USD about gender and violence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in the context of a screening of the film Honor Diaries.

When the film was proposed as a feature for our biennial Women and Gender Studies conference, members of our university community responded by raising questions about whether this was an appropriate vehicle for inaugurating a discussion of the topic of “honor violence” against women and girls in the nonwestern world. After I learned of concerns about the film, I logged onto Netflix to watch it, and began to investigate some of the media responses to the film, including the critique from CAIR that the film was Islamophobic. CAIR and others called attention to the major funding source for the film, the CLARION project, which had produced films criticized for inflammatory and misleading portrayals of Islam.

I approached the film with the wariness I frequently bring to the blockbuster style of documentary filmmaking that has become popular, the kind honed by Michael Moore, with sensationalistic claims, alarming (but often misleading) statistics, fast switches between different human-interest stories, and of course the scary music we all know so well.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this style of documentary filmmaking. Now, does that mean we shouldn’t screen these types of films in a university setting? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to think carefully about the way we present documentary films, which, often by virtue of the emotional and narrative power of cinema, are taken as authoritative text.

Honor Diaries used many of these common elements of documentary films. It featured decontextualized statistics, rushed through explanations of complicated political and religious contexts, and generated a larger argument primarily by mounting a critical mass of cases presented through short news snippets as well as first person anecdotes, including from the activists featured in the film. The stories from these activists, and their complicated conversations with each other were the best part of the film. It was in these “salon” conversations—and disagreements—that viewers glimpsed some of the complex factors feeding the many forms of violence presented in the film, factors that the sweeping category “honor culture” cannot fully explain. But when the film left the salon setting, it lost whatever potential it had to be, well, good. 

As a scholar, my default is to seek understanding before action. To some this is absurd. To me it is the only way that I can make an informed decision about how I should engage with particular conversations, how I should act, but also how I should teach. How we tell a story matters.

After watching the film, I began my mini field of readings from anthropologists who work on such topics as the complicated and longstanding tribal histories of female genital cutting, the impact of western immigration policy and the immigrant experience on the practice of child marriage and honor killings, the complexity of women’s activism throughout the Muslim world, and how the ongoing warfare fueled by the western military presence in places like Afghanistan has contributed to the extreme poverty and violence that women and girls face. As I read this literature I began to ask myself whether the film had helped me to understand the myriad causes of gendered violence and exploitation, or whether the very category of “honor culture” that was supposed to help actually created a critical veil that prevented me from grasping at the causes of this violence, my role in it, and my role in helping to stop it.

Many of these popular documentary films ask us to do something after viewing, to take our elevated heart rates and post something with a hashtag or donate some money to the funding organization to raise awareness. Meanwhile, the scholarship I was reading was actually challenging the very logics of much of this NGO activist work. One growing area of research lies in exploring the relationship between NGO work and the actual concerns and needs of women in the nonwestern world. Where does our money go? What does our money DO? And is the narrative that gets us to write that check a narrative that these women would actually be comfortable with? Is NGO work in fact functioning as a new form of imperialism? These are difficult questions and important questions. They are also paralyzing questions.

Ayan Hirsi Ali, who figures prominently in Honor Diaries as the expert on Islam, has taken western feminists to task for their reluctance to challenge patriarchal violence perpetrated in the name of Islam. Western feminists are shrill in denouncing rape culture on college campuses, the critique goes, but suddenly become abashed cultural relativists when faced with female genital cutting in Egypt. Perhaps we are hypocrites. Or perhaps are we wary of perpetuating what some have identified as a gendered Orientalism operating within western human rights discourse. As any student of the third wave knows, there is no one-size-fits-all feminism when it comes the myriad aspects of our identity—race, class, religion, nationality, sexuality. BUT should the buck stop when it comes to what are clearly violations of human rights, like the forced marriage and rape of children? The use of acid attacks to prevent girls from attending school? Forms of female genital cutting that range from removal of clitoris and labia minora to stitching up the labia majora?

It is easy for women like me to be horrified and outraged by such practices. But it is not easy for me, as a citizen of a state that has contributed to the poverty and devastation of many of these communities, to march in and tell these women and men that their practices are a violation of human rights. Of course, this is the role of the NGO, which is supposedly untainted by the neocolonial violence of the western state. But as anthropologists working in these communities have come to discover, in some cases the distinction is not as salient for the women and girls who are supposedly being helped. SO what are we in the West supposed to do? I don’t know. That’s why it is important for us to think carefully and critically about the way we talk about and contextualize these issues.

Let me be clear on a few things. We should not shelter our students from hard truths or lousy filmmaking. But we still owe it to ourselves to talk about what makes an effective introduction to issues that we know we don’t fully understand or have the critical lens or complete context for here in Vermillion, South Dakota. I have never had a problem with the fact that the USD Women and Gender Studies Conference wanted to screen Honor Diaries. I did have a problem with the idea that we should not be critical of the film, that we should not question whether it was right for our conference, or that any of these questions were tantamount to censorship or a violation of the first amendment. It is a violation of my role a scholar to tell me not to question, not to critique, not to seek better, more informed, and more critical ways of talking about “hot button” issues. I do not want USD to steer clear of controversy. But I do want USD to continue to think about how to engage these topics in a way that will make us more informed and more understanding of the complex world in which we live and to which we contribute.

At the screening of the film at USD, Raheel Raza, one of the activists featured in the film, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, and a member of the CLARION’s advisory board, dismissed the legitimacy of critiques of the funding source of the film. Who else is making films about these human rights violations or about honor killings and female genital mutilation and forced child marriages? she asked. Well, plenty of people are making documentaries with smaller budgets, that focus on fewer stories, on particular places, that strive to capture the complexity of these issues as they connect with particular histories of politics, economic upheaval, warfare, tribal practices, and religious culture. Just visit Women Make Movies and you can get an idea. I hope to screen some of those films at USD and find more voices, more scholarship that can contribute to our growing understanding of these topics, but also situated in discussions of the role of colonialism and the state, as well as religion and culture.

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