"Honor Diaries" might not be coming to a theater near you, at least not if CAIR gets its way. The award-winning documentary about "honor" violence against girls and women in much of the Muslim world was released last month in honor of International Women's Day, and it didn't take long for the Council on American Islamic Relations to slap its all-purpose "Islamophobic!" label on it. The film has been shown in dozens of venues, but CAIR has raised enough of a stink to get screenings cancelled on several college campuses, including the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois.
CAIR – a front group for Islamist extremism that masquerades as a civil rights organization (its first executive director, Nihad Awad, was an open supporter of Hamas) – is good at raising stinks. Last week Brandeis University caved in to demands that it rescind its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a heroic defender of women's rights in the Islamic world. With a life story that reads like a screenplay, Ali has personally experienced many of the evils she fights, including genital mutilation, forced marriage, and savage "honor" crimes. Her remarkable accomplishments should easily merit the honor of any university that upholds reason and intellectual diversity. But Brandeis apparently has different priorities now, like giving CAIR and the Islamophobia-phobes a veto over honorary degrees.
Ali was involved in making "Honor Diaries," which goes out of its way to convey respect for moderate Islam. It spotlights nine eloquent women with roots in the Islamic world, several of whom are devout Muslims – "Islam is my spiritual journey," says one – and all of whom are passionate about exposing the terrible abuses women and girls in many Muslim cultures suffer in the name of family honor. None thinks such horrors should be excused or neglected out of a misplaced cultural sensitivity or political correctness.
But it happens routinely. People prepared to label opposition to employer-paid contraceptives a "war on women" are generally much less willing to channel their outrage at the savagery of honor killings or child marriages in non-Western societies. "They fear treading on cultural toes," says Jasvinder Sanghera, one of the film's featured advocates. "We're constantly having to remind them that cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable."
For Sanghera, who fled a forced marriage as a young teen, this is no abstract theory. She is haunted by the memory of her sister, Ravina, who committed suicide rather than "dishonor" her family by leaving the husband she was forced to marry. Also highlighted in the film is Raquel Saraswati, who embraces Islam as a source of strength and peace in her life, yet feels "afraid all the time" of the backlash against those who challenge "honor-based" violence against women.
Efforts by CAIR and its ilk to squelch honest discussion of such grave human-rights issues – and to demonize as "haters" and "Islamophobes" those who do – encapsulate the very perversity "Honor Diaries" seeks to expose: valuing the honor of a community more than a woman's life or voice. But does CAIR's shrill protest reflect what average citizens in Muslim countries think of such a documentary? Or does the "Honor Diaries" Arabic Facebook page, with 95,000 "likes" – and climbing?
Why aren't more progressives passionate about these issues?
I put that question to Nazie Eftekhari, an immigrant from Iran and another of the women "Honor Diaries" focuses on. A successful Minnesota health-care entrepreneur, Eftekhari unhesitatingly describes herself as a "bleeding-heart liberal" and a longtime Democratic Party voter, loyalist, and fund-raiser. She is as mystified as I am.
"The biggest human-rights crisis of our generation is the treatment of women in Muslim-majority countries, and we've applied a gag order to ourselves," she replies with unmistakable distress. "We won't talk about it. Where are my fellow liberals? Where are the feminists?"
In theocratic Iran today, Eftekhari says, the legal age of marriage for girls has been lowered to 9. Men can now marry their adopted daughters. "How can President Obama, who has two young daughters, not be making a huge issue of this?" she wants to know. "It's not marriage, it's statutory rape."
Eftekhari can't understand why so many progressive voices fall silent on an issue she thinks they should be raising the loudest. And she has only contempt for anyone who thinks it progressive to snub those – like Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who so bravely speak out: "Ali needs no degree or honor from Brandeis; she is a guiding light for the women who respect and honor her. But where will Brandeis go to get its respect and honor back?"
This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.