‘It’s Easy to Think There’s a Difference in the Way We Bleed’

Censored Women’s Film Festival will bring guests including ‘Honor Diaries’ producer to GW this week.

Activist, writer and commentator Raquel Saraswati is one of the subjects of "Honor Diaries." (Photo courtesy Honor Diaries)
Activist, writer and commentator Raquel Saraswati is one of the subjects of "Honor Diaries." (Photo courtesy Honor Diaries)
November 18, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

The Global Women’s Institute will host the first-ever Censored Women’s Film Festival at the George Washington University Thursday and Friday, with screenings and panel discussions spotlighting the stories of marginalized women from around the globe.

“Honor Diaries,” a documentary on gender-based violence featuring activist voices from the Muslim world, is among the films to be screened. Producer and writer Paula Kweskin spoke to GW Today about her work and the response to it. She will join Raheel Raza and Zainab Khan, whose stories are included in “Honor Diaries,” for a Q & A after the screening Friday.

Q: How did you get involved with “Honor Diaries”?
A: I’m trained as a lawyer in human rights and international law. A few years ago I was working on these issues in sort of a traditional way, sending briefs to the United Nations and so on, working in that official sphere. And it was very depressing for me, to be quite honest. I was so happy for the opportunity, but I had always wanted to be working more directly on human rights issues. I felt like I was hitting a lot of barriers, trying to work through these official channels. 

So I learned about a group of filmmakers who were toying with the idea of film based on women’s roles in the Arab Spring. That was something that really spoke to me. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was producing and writing this film. We brought in the scope from the Arab Spring generally to something that I saw underpinning all of the conflicts, which was the concept of honor. A lot of what women were advocating about, whether it was in Tunisia or Libya or Sudan, was this issue of the “honor code.” Honor as something carried in women, to be guarded by men.

Not only was that at work in the countries I mentioned, but it was in play in the West as well. So I felt like in order to have integrity about the issue, I needed to focus more on the underpinning system.

Q: How did you find the nine women who would become your subjects?
A: As I said, I was really inspired by the Arab Spring. That was sort of my platform. So I used social media in much the same way. I did a ton of research and reached out to people, whether it was on Facebook, Twitter or just sending them an email. Jasvinder Sanghera, one of the women in the film, I read an article about. I was so moved by her work that I just reached out to her, and she granted me an initial interview.

They’re an incredibly inspiring, eclectic group of women from all over the world with different religious and cultural backgrounds. It was just really incredible to have the chance to get to know them. I started working on “Honor Diaries” in 2012, and I never thought that on the eve of 2016, we would still be getting our message out there.

Q: What are you looking forward to about the CWFF?

A: It just goes to show that there’s a huge vacuum when it comes to this space—the space of women’s rights and women’s issues and particularly culture-based violence and tradition-based violence and abuse against women—it’s something people really hesitate to talk about.

A year ago I said to my colleagues, “We’ve got to get everyone in the same room. We are not the only ones who are speaking about this, and we are not the only ones being silenced on these topics.” Raheel [Raza] and Zainab [Khan] from the film will be there with me, and a wonderful woman who I met in England named Leyla Hussein who made a film on female genital mutilation. [Ms. Hussein will discuss her activism after a screening of "The Cruel Cut" on Friday at 2:15 p.m. –Ed.]

Subsequent to Honor Diaries coming out, another movie came out called “The Price of Honor” about two girls murdered by their father in Texas several years ago. We became good friends with those filmmakers. [“The Price of Honor” will screen Friday at 9 a.m. followed by a discussion with director Xoel Pamos. –Ed.] It’s become a sisterhood of different filmmakers and activists working together and supporting each other’s work.

Raheel Raza, a Muslim Canadian journalist, author and activist, is featured in "Honor Diaries" and will discuss the film after its 11:15 a.m. Friday screening. (Photo courtesy Honor Diaries)

Q: Was there anything you learned during the making of this film that surprised you or changed your views?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So even though I came from kind of an academic, legalistic perspective on human rights and equality, firmly believing that all people deserve human rights, I found even within myself—and I think many people have this, and we don’t even realize it—that I viewed different cultures and traditions differently. We’re from different cultures and different societies, and you can’t shed that, no matter how hard you try.

So for me, particularly with an issue like female genital mutilation: Yes, I felt it was horrific, and I knew it was abuse. But I never realized how deeply and profoundly it affected the women on whom it was practiced. I realized my own prejudices were at play. It’s very easy to think “Oh, that’s their culture, they don’t mind,” or “They’re used to it, it’s part of their upbringing.”

But that’s not true. Abuse has the same effect on everyone no matter what their background or culture. If you talk to Leyla Hussein, or any victim of FGM, they will tell you about the sheer amount of pain and suffering—physical, mental, emotional—that they endured and still endure.

It’s very easy to think that there’s a difference in the way that we bleed, the way that we cry, the way that we feel. And that is not true. That’s the overarching takeaway that I’ve had from this experience, that all women have the same goals and dreams. They want to marry for love, they want their bodies to be safe, they want to make their own choices. That’s regardless of culture or religion.

Q: Let’s talk about the response to the film. What has your experience been?
A: Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s really positive. I think it’s a film that speaks not only to women but also to men. It shocks people, because I think most Americans have not heard of these issues, and most weren’t aware before they saw “Honor Diaries.” So that’s been really moving and important.

What’s really humbled me is when young women who’ve been affected by these issues have come up to me or to other filmmakers and said, “Thank you.” They’ve said things like, “You gave voice to something I never could, or never thought I could.”

Q: Some critics, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have challenged the film’s intentions. How do you respond to the criticism that “Honor Diaries” promotes Islamophobia?
A: This film is told exclusively in voices of women who are Muslim or are from Muslim-majority societies. It’s in their words, and they stand behind this film, and they travel with it. It’s something that has not only spoken to them, but to audiences. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in diverse communities and have Muslim, Christian, Jewish women come up to me and hug me and say, “Thank you.” That’s enough for me.

There’s obviously going to always be detractors when you are talking about women’s rights, talking about religion, talking about culture. Challenging the status quo is going to ruffle some feathers. But I think what’s also come out of that is some profound conversations. For example, an “Honor Diaries” screening was shut down at the University of Michigan in 2014. And about a month and a half ago, we screened the film there, a full year later. I wasn’t there, but Raheel Raza attended, and she said the conversation was so rich, so nuanced. People came with a lot of questions, and that’s what it’s about, right? So there’s a lot of silver lining.

To me, art and media are the best form of advocacy—and out of all media, filmmaking is the most potent form. Once you see something, you can’t un-see it, and you can’t un-know it. And that’s why I think that for me, as a women’s rights advocate, this is some of my most important work.

“Honor Diaries” will screen Friday at 11:15 a.m. in the Marvin Center, Suite 204, followed by a discussion with Ms. Kweskin and documentary subjects Ms. Raza and Ms. Khan. Tickets for all Friday screenings and workshops are free to GW students and are available, along with a full schedule and more information, at the CWFF website.

Censored Women's Film Festival 2015

This inaugural two day summit, featuring films by and about women whose voices have been silenced, is hosted by the Global Women's Institute. Featured films include "Honor Diaries," "India's Daughter," and the Oscar-nominated "Persepolis."

Registration is required and is free to George Washington University students for all Friday screenings and workshops. Friday general admission passes are $15; two-day passes, which include a 21+ cocktail reception, are $25.

Get Tickets

Full CWFF Schedule