Meet the Brave Women Who Are Fighting to End Female Persecution in the Muslim World

The first ever Censored Women’s Festival launched in partnership with George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute. The festival highlighted films previously censored and featured topics regarding the plight of women around the world who face genital mutilation, “honor killings,” and child marriages.

The festival included presentations from women featured in the films, women’s rights activists, and filmmakers. The featured films include “India’s Daughter,” which focuses on gang rape. The film was banned in that country after the film’s producers interviewed one of the rapists. Another film, “Persepolis,” is an adaptation of the award-winning graphic novel documenting an Iranian girl’s childhood during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although nominated for an Academy Award, the film was banned from Chicago Public Schools.

Opportunity Lives spoke with Paula Kweskin, a former human rights lawyer and producer of “Honor Diaries,” a highlight of the Censored Women’s Film Festival. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Kweskin’s research led her to discover that women in areas of the Middle East were subjugated brutally in the name of “honor.” With a background in domestic abuse advocacy and experience working in non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), Kweskin channeled her expertise into developing the documentary, which debuted in 2013. Kweskin believes the film can be a platform for change and catalyst for a movement.

More than 2 million viewers on six continents have seen “Honor Diaries,” Kweskin says. The film has also been screened on Capitol Hill, in the British House of Commons and at the United Nations.

Kweskin believes a challenging aspect of educating people is providing an understanding of how “honor” is defined.

“Some traditions hold that the honor of the family is contained within the women of the family,” she explained. “Therefore, the choices and the behavior of women do not belong to her. The only thing that matters is the notion of ‘honor’ for the family.” For Americans, Kweskin added, “it’s very hard for people to believe that a father, brother, uncle, or husband would kill a woman because of her choices, but this is exactly what takes place.”

Opportunity Lives also spoke with Raheel Raza, a Canadian activist featured in “Honor Diaries.” Raza credits the film with changing her life. Like Kweskin, Raza says the film has become a movement. She says “Honor Diaries” has created so much change that, at age 65, the film “has given me the passion to move on ahead.”

Raza was born in Pakistan into a patriarchal culture of “honor” and was told that girls should be seen and not heard. “I was always in trouble and was a little rebel. I just wanted to play cricket with the boys,” she said. Her father supported his rebellious daughter, but he died when Raza was 13.

Two events caused Raza to leave Pakistan. As a Sunni Muslim, the majority in Pakistan, she fell in love with a Shia man, which was not acceptable. Then in 1977, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq came into power after removing and executing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir Bhutto’s father) and ushered in a radical version of Islam. Women were forced to cover their heads in public, co-education was eliminated in schools and Islamic Sharia law was implemented, which was particularly harsh on women.

“This discomfited those of us who had always lived moderate, normal lives imbued with a traditional, spiritual interpretation of Islam,” Raza recalled.

Raza and her husband left Pakistan for Qatar and, after seven years, made their way to Ontario, Canada, with two young sons. Today, Raza is president of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow and works with the Canadian Muslim community to fight radical and extremist Islamists. She also mentors women of Pakistani descent, Sudanese women and women from other cultures where “honor” and female genital mutilation are the norm.

As a practicing Muslim and grandmother, Raza is an outspoken advocate of gender equality and human rights. “The advice I give to women is that the freedom of expression is as important as life itself,” Raza explained. “Don’t be afraid to ask for your rights. We have to speak for those who have been silenced.”

Another activist refusing to be silenced is Raquel Evita Saraswati. Saraswati, also featured in “Honor Diaries,” was born and raised in the United States. She attended Simmons College and became active around gender-based violence issues as a teenager. Armed with a degree in international relations, Saraswati initially worked with HIV services organizations, but eventually transitioned to working with women’s rights NGOs.

“It’s very hard for people to believe that a father, brother, uncle, or husband would kill a woman because of her choices, but this is exactly what takes place”

As a practicing Muslim woman, Saraswati says she’s finding encouragement from other Muslims in their early 20s. “Basically, all I received was push-back and hate mail,” she said. Now, she believes, Muslim women are voicing their opinions through blogs and social media. They are more organized and feel more empowered.

Saraswati has been publicly engaged in advocating for women’s rights for a decade, and is grateful to see the changing mindset — although Muslim women are still nervous when speaking out. She tells them, “Embrace that you feel afraid and in that fear lays the possibility for action.”

In addition to her work with NGOs, Saraswati has established the Adalah Initiative, which seeks to eradicate honor- and gender-based violence. She hopes her group can identify and collaborate with like-minded groups to build a clearinghouse and serve as a resource, so nonprofits do not continue to “reinvent the wheel.”

Paula Kweskin says the Censored Women’s Festival was important for giving a voice to the voiceless. “Unfortunately, many of the women who speak out against these issues receive death threats,” she said. “Women who live in free societies feel it is their responsibility to speak out for women in other countries who are unable to do it.”

As for Raza, she knows her work is not finished. She says “Honor Diaries” presents an opportunity to expose the problem, educate the masses and empower victims to take action. “My sons ask me, ‘Why can’t you be a regular grandmother?’ I am woman of deep faith and I think on Judgment Day — what have I done?”

Visit http://www.cwff2015.com/ for a complete list of films at the Censored Women’s Film Festival. “Honor Diaries” can be viewed on Netflix.

Cherylyn LeBon is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @HarleyLeBon.