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Ayaan Hirsi Ali film ignites row over Islam, censorship

Activists say ‘Honor Diaries’ documentary exploits concerns over gender-based violence to further an anti-Islamic agenda

"Honor Diaries," a new film associated with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, has sparked a series of protests since premiering on March 8 — International Women’s Day — at the United Nations in New York. The documentary chronicles violence against women in Muslim-majority communities, and last week's decision by Brandeis University to withdraw Hirsi Ali's honorary doctorate coincided with heated debates on campuses across the United States about the merits of discussing the cultural roots of gender-based violence at the risk of furthering what activists say is the film's anti-Islamic agenda.

The film alternates between opinions from self-proclaimed experts and ominous statistics and vignettes about gender-based violence. Those include interviews with a 10-year-old child bride in Yemen, murder trials for honor killings involving Muslim immigrants’ daughters in the U.S., images of women’s faces disfigured by acid attacks and a testimony about a forced marriage in the United Kingdom that ended with the bride’s committing suicide. Nine women’s rights advocates share their stories of abuse and give advice during round table discussions on honor violence.

The women in the film are unsure whether to blame culture, religion or other women for the atrocities. "Is this Islam?" one participant asks. "If not, what are we doing to change it? And if there is anything within our faith that allows that men feel empowered to do that," she adds, "how are we fighting that?"

But other activists say that the film’s funder, the Clarion Project — which has been responsible for documentaries such as “The Third Jihad” and “Radical Islam’s Vision for America” — and executive producer Hirsi Ali’s hostility toward Islam leave little doubt that the documentary has an anti-Islamic agenda.

The producers of the film are “seeking to hijack a legitimate issue to promote its anti-Muslim agenda,” Ibrahim Hooper, communication director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Al Jazeera. “I’ve compared it to the KKK producing a documentary about the American Jewish community and then nobody being able to question the agenda of its producers.”

Linda Sarsour, civic engagement coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities and a self-described progressive women’s rights activist who said she is pro-choice, told Al Jazeera that even though some of the film’s featured activists may be “well-intentioned,” the documentary equates violence against women with Islam. “We don’t need Islamophobes to talk to us and tell the stories of oppressed and abused Muslim women," she said. "It’s just disingenuous."

The University of Michigan and the University of Illinois have canceled or postponed planned screenings of the film. Beth Marmarelli, communications director at the University of Michigan, told Al Jazeera in a statement it postponed the screening “because many of the [event’s] panelists were not able to attend the event.”

“We are working on a new date to show the film on campus,” Marmarelli said.

But Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR’s Michigan chapter, said his organization is in talks with the university, hoping to dissuade it from screening a movie that he said discusses issues that deserve the public’s attention but “intentionally misframes [honor violence] as a Muslim issue.”

The producers of “Honor Diaries” were unavailable for comment, and Hirsi Ali declined to be interviewed.

But CAIR’s objections to the film were challenged by Raheel Raza, who is featured in the film and is one of the first Muslim women to lead prayers at mosques in Canada.

“It’s still far better that we as Muslim women have spoken on [honor violence] than some Islam hater who wanted to pick up the issue and talk about it,” she said. “This a human rights issue that’s been brushed under the carpet for so long.” 

Qanta Ahmed, a physician and conservative columnist featured in the documentary, told Al Jazeera the backlash needs to be “put into perspective,” saying “the attempt to arrest the screenings in the U.S. is very minor.”

Ahmed called the detractors’ views “incredibly myopic,” adding that those activists are harming women by deliberately silencing a debate on honor violence in communities where she said the practice is most prevalent. For example, the practice of female genital mutilation "is not advocated in Islam in any way," she says in the film. “It doesn’t appear in the Quran but has very much been adopted by some Muslim societies.”

Female genital mutilation is not specific to Muslims, although it is prevalent in many Muslim-majority nations in Africa as well as Yemen and Iraq, according to a study by the United Nations Children's Fund. In Niger, 55 percent of Christian women had undergone the procedure, while 2 percent of Muslim women there have experienced some form of cutting. An estimated 125 million women worldwide have been cut, and 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation in the next decade, according to the study, which surveyed women in 29 countries over the past three years.

Gender politics

A similar controversy surrounded Brandeis University’s decision last Tuesday to reverse itself on conferring an honorary degree on Hirsi Ali, after a campaign by Muslim students who said giving the degree to Hirsi Ali was hurtful to their community. “This is a real slap in the face to Muslim students,” said Sarah Fahmy, a Brandeis senior and member of the Muslim Student Association who started a petition objecting to the honorary degree for Hirsi Ali, prior to the withdrawal.

“The selection of Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree is a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech,” she wrote. “While we are not belittling the severity of the issues that she raises, she uses hate speech against Islam as a means to do this.” Fahmy quoted some of Hirsi Ali’s remarks in an interview with the magazine Reason, in which she called Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

Sarsour commended Brandeis for withdrawing the honorary doctorate. "The problem we have with Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” she said, “is not that we invalidate her own experience, but she equates violence against women to Islam.” Sarsour added that “her story does not represent Islam or all Muslim women" and that Hirsi Ali "has few allies among Muslim women around the world." 

Esmaa Alariachi, president of Dutch Muslim women’s organization Al Nisa, told Al Jazeera that Hirsi Ali’s political legacy among Muslim women in the Netherlands, where she was a member of parliament from 2003 to 2006, was virtually nonexistent.

Somali-born Hirsi Ali requested asylum in the Netherlands after fleeing an arranged marriage with her cousin and undergoing genital mutilation. She quickly rose to prominence as a politician, campaigning on issues of gender-based violence, especially female cutting.

Unlike in Somalia, Alariachi said, female genital mutilation "has never been an issue among the country’s Moroccan and Turkish communities."

The former host of shows “The Girls of Halal” and “Bimbos and Burkas,” — polemical platforms of debate exploring some of the country’s issues with multiculturalism and immigration — she said Hirsi Ali never responded to her invitations to appear as a guest. “She didn’t want to talk with Muslim women. She would rather talk about Muslim women,” Alariachi said.

“She carefully chose whom to engage,” she said. “The white Dutchman reveled in everything she had to say. She had a very hard life, and she, unfortunately, blamed Islam for it.”

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