Barbara Kay: Suffering caused by honour tell tales that smite the heart


National Post - Wednesday March 26th, 2014

OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images
‘Honor Diaries’ confronts the awkward anti-multicultural fact that some cultures treat women better than others.

The documentary film “Honor Diaries” was previewed in Chicago in October, but this month marked its global release. Its Canadian premier took place in Ottawa on Monday to a full house, and its next Canadian showing is this Sunday in Vaughan, Ontario.

Honor Diaries is an important film about the difficult lives of women in – or from – certain regions of the world. It is meant to open up a topic of conversation that many of us are resistant to exploring, because it means confronting the awkward anti-multicultural fact that some cultures treat women better than other cultures.

The reality discussed in the film is related to the phenomenon of honour governing family dynamics. According to this principle, a family’s honour is rooted in the sexual virtue of the daughters, wives and sisters. Any deviation from the draconian standards of chaste, modest and rigorously faithful behavior that family honour demands can result in the shunning, torture or death of the female that “caused” her family’s shame in the eyes of others.

In South Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East and many parts of Africa, women are second-class citizens at best, and virtual slaves at worst. Nearly 40% of women in Egypt and 85% of women in Afghanistan are illiterate. Since 1989, at least 125-million women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Middle East and Africa.

According to the UN, 5,000 women are victims of honour killings every year. But many credible observers put the real number as high as 20,000. (In Canada, 15 murders of girls and women have been honour-linked.)

A frequent corollary to honour-motivated violence and murders is the lack or remorse in the killers; indeed, it is the fatalism and even pride with which fathers, mothers and brothers recount their roles that chills: “It was her destiny to die this way” says a mother in the film who doused her daughter with acid; “I did this for my honour,” and “I am proud of what I did,” says a Pakistani man who killed his wife. Their reasons – an alleged glance at a boy, the mere rumour of a sexual betrayal – are incomprehensible to us, but all too real and pressing to them.

Produced and written by American Paula Kweskin, a human rights attorney, Honor Diaries brings together a circle of advocates, therapists and spokespeople for women’s rights in honour-dominated societies who talk about their own honour-related experiences or the injustices they’ve witnessed.

The agonized face and terrified screams of a child undergoing FGM drive the point home briefly but unforgettably

Interspersing their dialogue are graphic snippets illustrating the suffering caused by honour. Some of these, like the agonized face and terrified screams of a child undergoing FGM drive the point home briefly but unforgettably. The tears accompanying UK Sikh activist Jasvinder Sanghera’s story of her unhappily (forcibly) married sister, who self-immolated in order to spare her family the shame of a divorce, smite the heart.

The lives of girls and women are held cheap in many regions dominated by the Hindu and Sikh religions, but nine out of 10 of the countries with the worst gender-rights disparities are Islam-dominated, according to the World Economic Forum. There is no evading that elephant in the room, and the women in this film gamely attempt to address it head-on. But the subject needs a film in itself.

Many people, and feminists in particular, feel it is racist to judge the gender practices of other cultures, preferring to dwell on the perceived deficits in our own. They must get over that, as all the women in the film agree. Canadian women viewers will walk out of this film feeling as I did: There but for the grace of cultural accident go I.