Raquel Sarawati in "The Honor Diaries.
Raquel Sarawati in "The Honor Diaries. Photo by The Honor Diaries
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Honor Diaries
Raquel Saraswati, one of the nine women featured in "The Honor Diaries." Photo by Honor Diaries

Jasvinder Sanghera, a Briton of Indian descent, narrowly escaped a forced marriage. Her sister didn’t. She was so miserable she committed suicide by setting herself on fire.

Raheel Reza left Pakistan largely to avoid dishonoring her family. She was a Sunni Muslim who dared to marry for love – choosing a Shiite, and younger man to boot – thus going against the tradition that dictated that her parents would choose her mate.

Fahima Hashim, a Sudanese human rights activist, outraged her mother when she succeeded in stopping the planned circumcision of two young female cousins – a practice known as female genital mutilation.

These are three of the nine extraordinary women you’ll meet in “Honor Diaries,” a new documentary film undergoing a multinational, month-long launch that began on International Women’s Day, March 8, and includes screenings in Israel.

Beyond spotlighting some of the issues described above, as well as the issue of “honor killings” – involving the murder of a girl or woman for dishonoring her family through some putative act of promiscuity or defiance – the filmmakers say they’ve begun a worldwide campaign to effect change.

“More than a movie, 'Honor Diaries' is a movement meant to inspire viewers to learn more about issues facing women in Muslim-majority societies, and to act for change,” the filmmakers explain on their website.

If its Arabic Facebook page is any indication – it’s garnered some 75,000 "likes" – the film definitely has someone talking. And if viewers look carefully at the credits, they may be surprised to see that the movie was made by the Clarion Project, founded by Raphael Shore, a Canadian-Israeli rabbi.

Anonymous funders

The film’s website describes the Clarion Project as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism, while providing a platform for the voices of moderation. [Executive producer] Shore’s previous films include the award-winning documentary 'Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,' 'The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America,' and 'Iranium.'"

Many critics have called these documentaries Islamophobic and inflammatory. Each has been the subject of controversy, particularly “Obsession,” of which 28 million copies were distributed for free to U.S. voters during the 2008 presidential election.

Shore, who for 20 years held senior positions in Aish HaTorah, an ultra-Orthodox organization, is also the founder and CEO of Jerusalem U, which describes itself as an educational “nonprofit organization dedicated to making young Jews proud of their heritage and emotionally connected to the Land of Israel.”

Shore told Haaretz that he left Aish HaTorah in 2006 and that neither the Clarion Project nor Jerusalem U, also known as Jerusalem Online University, has any connection to Aish. However, several journalists and bloggers still link him to the organization.

Some 25 partner organizations participated or otherwise lent their support to the making of "Honor Diaries," Shore said, which cost about $500,000 to produce. “We’re very excited about the film, we’re thrilled with how it’s taking off and that people are taking to it,” he added.

Asked who the main sources of funding were, Shore responded: “We don’t say exactly where it comes from. Most of the people involved want to remain anonymous.”

The two other executive producers of the film are Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali women's rights activist and writer best known for her book “Infidel,” whose AHA Foundation is also listed in the credits, and Christopher Dewey. Hirsi Ali is interviewed in the documentary, as is Dr. Qanta Ahmed, who has also emerged as a leading critic of Islamic fundamentalism.

Shore added that Clarion also teamed up with Muslim activists when making the movie: “We collaborated with some very brave Muslim women, and dozens of partner organizations with Muslim activists, who are promoting rights for millions of women suffering subjugation and abuse. I invite the general public to view the film for themselves, and join in our award-winning interfaith campaign to help save women and girls."

First released at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, the film was screened in November at the St. Louis International Film Festival, where it won the interfaith award for best documentary. Earlier this month, it began a worldwide release with events in Washington (at the National Press Club), London (in partnership with Amnesty International) and Geneva (where the filmmakers delivered a copy to United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay).

Last Wednesday, “Honor Diaries” had a well-attended launch at the Lev Smadar Theater in Jerusalem. It premiered in Ottawa on Monday and will premier in Toronto on March 30. The documentary has already had 80 private showings around the world, says Paula Kweskin, the lead writer/producer.

The filmmakers say the idea for “Honor Diaries” was born during the start of the Arab Spring in 2010, though voices of Arabs or even Westerners are noticeably absent: None of the nine women featured in the movie grew up in the Arab world, with the exception of Hashim, the Sudanese who is also the only one still living in an Islamic country. The rest are living in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, having either immigrated to those countries or having been born there after their parents left countries such as Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kweskin, who moved to Jerusalem from North Carolina in 2010 after earning a law degree, says the filmmaking team hoped to focus also on Egypt, but learned that it would be too difficult to find people willing to speak on camera. Instead, they decided to move the project beyond the Arab world. “It became more of a conversation of honor and how honor affects women’s lives,” she says.

The nine women are seen sharing their beliefs individually and in a kind of a living-room powwow, filmed in a house in Staten Island, New York. The interviews are interspersed with troubling footage and images of abuse of girls and women in the Muslim world, taken from known outlets such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, as well as a haunting selection of photographs by Stephanie Sinclair called “Too Young To Wed.”

For example, viewers see clips of Taliban men beating women or Iranian morality police shoving screaming young women into cars, and are given a litany of gloomy if fuzzy statistics: “5,000 women are victims of honor killings each year, according to UN estimates; women’s advocacy groups contend the number is actually 20,000, according to the BBC.”

Reza, who came to Canada 25 years ago from Karachi, is one of the film’s most engaging voices. She says that once invited to participate in the documentary, she did her own research about the Clarion Project, and decided she wasn’t really concerned about their previous work.

“I thought this project was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard of, and I say hats off to Clarion for having done this and allowing us to speak. We were not paid and it was not scripted,” Reza told Haaretz in a phone interview.

“The term Islamophobia is being used today to ward off any criticism of Islam and to silence people. Moreover, this is not really a film about Islam, it’s a film about human rights," she said. "Those who are apologists will have an issue with that.”