Lifting the Veil Project: An interview with Huma Munshi

This article is cross-posted from The Lifting the Veil Project with permission

An interview with Huma Munshi

We recently interviewed Huma Munshi about the concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ within South Asian communities, among others. Huma is a writer and poet who writes on many issues including feminism and tackling ‘honour’ based violence. She sees writing as a means to connect with others and healing. She tweets at @Huma101

Please be aware that there is a trigger warning for child sexual abuse, rape and examples of victim blaming within this article.

You recently started the #fuckhonour and #fuckshame hashtags on Twitter. What drove you to start your campaign?

Muslim Women’s Network launched a report, entitled Unheard Voices, in autumn of this year describing the prevalence of young Asian, Muslim girls being sexually abused. There were a number of things that made me extremely angry but what led me to start the “#fuckhonour” hashtag was the concept of ‘honour’ to victim blame[1] and silence young girls who had been victims of abuse. In one case, parents of a sexual abuse victim felt that the young girl had brought shame on to the family. As a result, they forced her to undergo hymen repair surgery and then into a forced marriage.

A child being abused is horrific and but what compounded my anger was (yet again) family and community ‘honour’ had come before the needs of a child. There are umpteenth cases like this. There is the case of Shafilea Ahmed a 17 year old girl who was murdered by her parents in front of her siblings for refusing a forced marriage. There was the case of Banaz Mahmoud, a young girl in South London, who was raped and killed by her family members for not staying with her abusive and violent husband who they had chosen for her.

So my anger was cumulative. I started the hashtag whilst reading the case studies in Unheard Voices but I have heard stories of young people being abused and murdered in the name of honour for a long and painful time. I know this only too well. I allude to my own experience in my #fuckhonour and #fuckshame article of being a survivor of honour based oppression. I found the writing and the twitter hashtag extremely cathartic.

Interestingly, it was the founder of Media Diversified, Samantha Asumadu, who suggested I write the article and that is how I got the opportunity to put my views across. She saw me tweeting the hashtag. Sometimes social media gives you some special opportunities.

In your accompanying article to the hashtags, you mentioned that some people did not like that you had used profanity. Why did you step away from a ‘polite’ way of highlighting this important issue?

I recently came across the term ‘respectability politics’ whereby you play by the “rules” and adopt the acceptable discourse of the dominant class in order to get respect and the recognition you desire. But the more I understand oppression, the more I realise that we have to develop our own discourse and do away with so-called respectability politics. I also think asking politely for change within my own community will not overturn the hegemony that legitimises oppression.

This realisation and change in my writing is reflected in my activism. I refuse to ask politely for my rights to be protected or the rights of other women who are being oppressed. To suppress that part of myself now would be inauthentic.

Could you please explain what you mean by ‘honour’? How does it impact the reporting and attitudes towards sexualised violence in South Asian communities?

‘Honour’ can be translated as family status or standing within the community. The word in Urdu is “izzat” and a more accurate translation is “family status”. But ‘honour’ is the commonly used word. It is ironic as there is no honour in murder, it is a hate crime.

The Crown Prosecution Service define honour based violence as “practices which are used to control behaviour within families or other social groups to protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs and/or honour. Such violence can occur when perpetrators perceive that a relative has shamed the family and / or community by breaking their honour code. Women are predominantly (but not exclusively) the victims of so called ‘honour based violence’, which is used to assert male power in order to control female autonomy and sexuality.”

The final sentence is particularly import to understand the impact of honour in patriarchal societies. Honour is a means to oppress and subjugate women. In societies where ‘honour’ is put above the well-being of women, a woman’s intellect, autonomy, sexuality and identity and all supressed. They are seen as a threat to family standing within the community. Within these patriarchal communities, what could be more dangerous than an unmarried sexually active young woman?

There is also a prevalence of honour based violence within Turkish, Kurdish (see the work of the Iranian, Kurdish, Women’s Rights Organisation), Middle Eastern, Afghani, African and South and Eastern European communities. It is a common misunderstanding that only South Asian communities are impacted by ‘honour’. This list is not exhaustive. The police need to be particularly mindful that this is an additional barrier which hinders people from those communities reaching out, young people from these communities have been socialised to not bring “shame” to their families.

In addition to this, the police are still reluctant to intervene when young people say they are at risk of violence from their families.  As Unheard Voices reports: “the level of service received from police can depend on your ethnicity. There was a tendency not to disrupt and a reluctance to intervene because of the potential resistance from within the community.”

What were the general attitudes of men and women towards your activism and speaking out? Did they differ between sexes? Did they differ between races?

Fortunately, the response has been positive and I personally have not had any backlash. I have been speaking up about these issues on twitter for a while and haven’t been trolled. My aim is to combat all forms of victim blaming and realise that every victim is of equal worth and requires equal support. I would hope this is picked up by wider feminist networks and campaigns so this does not remain a marginal issue.

Do you think that with the rise of the far-right, there is some element of victims being afraid to speak out because the issue may be turned into one of race, rather than one which focuses on violence?

Being a survivor of honour based oppression and having read widely on the barriers other victims face, it is not the far-right that stops you accessing help.

You don’t speak out because you feel a profound sense of shame. You feel a sense of shame that you are a victim; you feel a sense of shame that it is your family – the very people that should be supporting you – that are the perpetrators.

We should focus on whether front line services are less likely to support victims due to the cultural background of the victim. Is a teacher less likely to help some children because they do not want to interfere in so-called “cultural issues”? Will there be less support from the policeand social services because of the background of the victim? This is the issue that needs to be addressed.

Focusing on race in cases like the child abuse and exploitation cases in Rochdale is very unhelpful. There is no “typical victim”; Asian girls are just as likely as their white counterparts to be victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.  It is gendered violence and abuse and not an issue of race.

How closely tied are the issues of forced marriage and sexual violence in South Asian communities?

The two issues are tied to consent and domination. In both instances, patriarchal society seeks to dominate, subdue and control women (and men who do not comply). In these instances, these acts seek to control women who do not adhere to the strict moral code.

There are wider points regarding the prevalence of rape and gender based violence in Indiawhich alludes to the unequal treatment of women and issues pertaining to dowry and the high rates of foeticide. This provides some wider context to the oppression women experience.

How do you hope that the #fuckhonour and #fuckshame hashtags will help to raise awareness, or tackle the issue?

I hope this issue is picked up by the mainstream feminist movement and those that campaign to end violence against women and girls. This issue must not be neglected within the South Asian community.

Service providers from police, hospitals, teachers, housing and social services need to understand the profound impact of ‘honour’ as a barrier for some to access support. Most importantly they need to treat all victims with the support they are entitled. No culture comes before the dignity and rights of an individual.

Finally, I would like other survivors and victims to see this hashtag and realise it was never our shame; the shame will always lie with the perpetrators.

[1] There are a number of campaigns tackling this, Everyday Victim Blaming is a good campaign to combat this @evb_now

The Lifting the Veil Project