Honor Diaries: Who is afraid of human rights?

George Orwell’s novel 1984 portrays a violent dystopian society surviving through the continuous suppression and falsification of information. We know first-hand that this is how oppression works throughout the world. One of us (Struckman-Johnson) spent decades piecing together difficult-to-find video clips, news articles, and photos in order to successfully teach about the patriarchal oppression of women around the world. One of us (Sternadori) was cautioned at the age of six by her parents (members of the Bulgarian Communist Party) never to repeat their political jokes, lest something horrible happened just by uttering some words.

We have come to embrace the idea that transparency is crucial to ending any form of violence. This is why we were shocked by the recent fervent attempts — in 2015, in the United States of America — to ban the screening of a documentary, Honor Diaries, which tackles the problem of worldwide honor killings and other violence against women, often embedded in state laws, tradition and political indifference.

Honor Diaries is set to be screened on Friday, 10 April, at 1:45 p.m., in the Muenster University Center Grand Ballroom at the University of South Dakota during the upcoming Women and Gender conference. In addition, Muslim women’s rights activist Raheel Raza, one of the nine women featured in the film, is attending the conference and will participate in a post-screening discussion.

But not all is well just because it ends well. The road to this screening has been fraught with obstacles. The film has been accused of Islamophobia, even though it is supported by groups such as Muslims Facing Tomorrow, the Alliance of Iranian Women and other organizations, most of which are women’s rights groups. The brave women shown in the documentary — like Raheel Raza — are either Muslim or were born in Muslim families, and they speak of making the film as an almost-religious duty to humanity.

The film, however, has faced backlash from other Muslims. According to an opinion piece appearing in The Boston Globe, the attempts to censor the film can be traced to an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Indeed, the organization has campaigned to cancel at least one of the film’s screenings, as indicated by its 2014 letter to the United Nations Foundation.

What is curious is that, as one can see from the letter, CAIR appears to have no issues with the film’s content.  The organization does not say that the film’s content is Islamophobic, and does not point to any specific elements in the film it finds questionable. CAIR’s problem seems to be not with the film, but with the two executive producers (who in the film business tend to have limited power over the production content) and one of the film’s 42 partner organizations, the Clarion Project, which is said to have funded the documentary. CAIR denies the female filmmakers any agency by shifting the focus of attention away from their work and away from the issues they raise. This is a textbook example of the so-called “ad hominem” logical fallacy, which entails damning the source while saying nothing about the actual content of the message.

How did this controversy play out at USD? It was more dramatic than we were used to seeing. At first, however, the conversation about screening Honor Diaries occurred in a very peaceful and ordinary manner. The film’s promotional team sent emails to faculty and staff members affiliated with the Women and Gender Studies program at USD, inviting them to host a screening.  Some of these faculty and staff members forwarded the emails to one of us (Sternadori), suggesting that the film be included in the program of the Women and Gender conference in April. Then, once the film became part of the conference program in January, a student group, the Association for Advancement of Women’s Rights (AAWR), insistently asked to sponsor the film because “it tells an important story about women’s rights in the global community”.

All seemed well until a faculty member from USD’s College of Health Sciences emailed one of us (Sternadori) to say that she “truly believe[d] that showing this movie goes against ‘Inclusive Excellence’ that this University is working hard to achieve”. She followed up by meeting with other members of the university community and voicing her concerns to them. The tide shifted, and a film that is truly heartbreaking — in ways that should never be politicised — became the centre of a massive controversy.

On 20 March, AAWR sent an email to rescind its sponsorship of Honor Diaries because, according to the message, “we are concerned about disrespecting or presenting biased portrayals of the Muslim community.” At a planning meeting for the Women and Gender conference later that day, members of this women’s student group said they did not want to be involved with the film because their office in the Diversity Center is next to the office of the Muslim Student Association, and it is very important for them to maintain a good working relationship.  Then, two USD faculty members insisted on removing the film from the conference program. (In addition, a screening of Honor Diaries scheduled for Sunday, 22 March, by the Campus Activities Board mysteriously disappeared from USD’s program of events).

In the end, to ban or not to ban Honor Diaries from the Women and Gender conference was fought over on two occasions by a group of people (including Sternadori and Struckman-Johnson) raised in communities with Christian roots. On both occasions, a mythical Muslim “community” was present like the elephant in the room. Some people very much wanted to defend it.

But they never considered some important questions: who are we to judge which Muslim community or group is more equal than others?  Who are we to agree with CAIR’s condemnation of the film over the support from the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow and the Alliance of Iranian Women? And who is afraid of screening a film that exposes truly horrific human rights violations?

Even though Honor Diaries remained on the conference program as planned, some faculty still expressed concerns about how we should “frame” the post-screening discussion, given that no members of the Muslim Student Association and not even the faculty member who initially challenged the film are planning to attend. This raises yet another question: who are we to “frame” anything at a public university, where the free flow of ideas is supposed to be encouraged and not restricted?

This has also been very upsetting because it is not the first time in the history of USD’s Women and Gender conference when certain content has created discomfort and resistance — but it is the first time anyone has tried to ban such content. One of us (Struckman-Johnson) remembers the time in the 1980s when USD’s women faculty won a class action suit challenging the gender wage gap and then-President Joe McFadden set in motion the first women’s conference on campus. Since then, the conference has presented many controversial issues generating much “discomfort” — including abortion rights panels, exposes by Native women challenging tribal corruption (to the great displeasure of their Native communities), and even a presentation by a group of midwives who could have been arrested for participating in the conference.

And in the past few weeks, we have been fighting over which slivers of a community (or a perceived community) are more authentic and more deserving of our attention than others.  The misguided effort to ban Honor Diaries has shaken our confidence in USD women’s ability to stand up to the oppression that so conveniently profits others. We cannot imagine that anyone who cares about the misery, suffering, mutilation and murder of women would consider banning this film.

It is encouraging, however, that, since the controversy began, we have seen an incredible outpouring of support. One of us (Sternadori) received approximately 1,270 emails from people thanking her for opposing the attempt to cancel the film screening. Colleagues from other universities expressed support as well. For example, Lyombe (Leo) Eko at the University of Iowa, wrote to say: “Banning this movie from the USD would be a naked act of censorship that is incompatible with everything universities stand for. The USD needs to teach its students that under the First Amendment, the rights of the speaker (the movie makers and Miglena Sternadori) trump the feelings of the viewers (the censors) on matters of public concern.”

We encourage the readers of Index on Censorship to watch Honor Diaries, which streams on Netflix and Amazon, and to carefully consider its content and the grounds on which it has been so vehemently criticised.  We also hope that Orwell’s work will continue to be widely read. In 2015, he is as relevant as ever because — contrary to what the Party says in 1984 — ignorance is not strength.

As women, we have been socialized to play well with others. But we should not regard this as a categorical imperative. We know from the unending history of genocide and from experiments like those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo that there are times when getting along with some people at the expense of others is the wrong choice that leads to loss of life and indescribable suffering on a large scale.

This guest column was published on April 8 2015 at indexoncensorship.org