Collective Voice

No one groaned when the harsh fluorescent lights flickered back on. We sat in silence, staring straight ahead at the rolling film credits, processing stories of injustice, brutality, and cautious hope. I quickly glanced around the room from my seat in the front row. My red, puffy eyes made contact with others. None of us expected to cry together on our first day of class, but we had no other choice while watching Honor Diaries.

Honor Diaries, a 2013 documentary, amplifies the voices of women’s rights advocates in the fight against honor based violence, a prevalent form of oppression in Muslim-majority societies around the world. Honor based violence occurs after an individual brings shame to his or her family by violating an established custom or tradition intended to regulate sexuality and women’s bodies. We see it in the news in the form of forced marriages and honor killings, but it encompasses other forms of pressure and abuse, too.

What we, the students in the sociology course, “Women: Local/Global Connections,” learned from the documentary was that a grossly underestimated 5,000 honor killings occur every year worldwide. We started asking questions that revealed how far removed we are. How could honor be worth this much? What does “honor” mean in the United States? If patriarchy (a social system organized to benefit men and maintain the subordination of women) isn’t cultural, how else can we understand this? How is this form of oppression connected to the oppression of women in the United States?

As we discussed those questions, my mind continuously flashed back to a story told by Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana. Sanghera’s sister was forced into marriage as a teenager and instead of divorcing her husband, an act that would bring shame to her family, she set herself on fire to commit suicide. That story encompasses how powerful the concept of honor is in certain communities; so powerful that a young woman could be convinced that making the decision to die in a painful way is what is best. I have a sister, too, and I can’t imagine that story being a part of my life, but it is a part of Sanghera’s life and so many others.

Although my life and Sanghera’s are so different, I’ll soon learn how we are similar. That is why I wanted to take “Women: Local/Global Connections.” During the course of the semester, we will meet with activists visiting from South Africa, conduct individual semester-long research projects, and form a social action project as a class. We have several books to read and reflection essays to write and admittedly, looking at the list now, especially next to everything else I’ll be doing to finish my senior year at Arcadia, this seems like a lot. But, the topics draw out emotions that motivate me as much as they exhaust me. There are so many things that are deeply wrong with the world and, while there have been tireless people dedicated to fixing that, we are witnesses to a societal struggle between progress and regression.

To be honest, there are times when I doubt we’ll ever achieve and sustain an equitable society. What convinces me otherwise is being surrounded by people who care as much as I do. Finding like-minded and passionate people in my classes reminds me that progress can be made. When I become overwhelmed by the weight of these issues, listening to comedic podcasts with hosts who truly care about what’s happening in society helps. I get my laugh, and then I regain my passion. The fact that people need to come together to create change was discussed in Honor Diaries, too, as the activists seldom had other people to stand beside them, talk with them, and combine energies.

If you’ve never taken a course in sociology or women’s studies, then this is what it is like. We face hard and scary truths that bubble under, and sometimes boil over, the surface of everyday life. We grapple with meanings and solutions. There is no straightforward answer, but these social problems are important and deserve critical attention. And, that attention should come from groups of people like those I’ve found at Arcadia who can support and inspire one another when the issues seem insurmountable. As long as someone is willing to listen and speak up, there’s hope for the future.