In April of 2012 I got an email from a woman who said she was a friend of a friend of mine – she had gone to school with one of the women that I painted in Technicolor Muslimah. From her personal gmail account, she wrote that my paintings “capture a unique expression which is often lost through mainstream media.” She was in the early stages of a documentary film focused on women’s rights and women’s activism “mainly focusing on Muslim-majority countries” and wanted to maybe include me. I was thrilled at the prospect of being in any kind of film to talk about my art, especially so early in my career.
That amazing opportunity turned out to be “The Honor Diaries.” *gag*
We did a phone interview, then a skype interview with her and the director. Throughout the two-month process, we exchanged a number of emails, and the Clarion Fund was never mentioned. We spoke about the controversy around Mona El-Tahawy’s “Why They Hate Us” article, and I felt like we were on the same page. I sent her some links and quotes like “I struggle with the fine balance of condemning violations of human rights without accidentally submitting to contemporary extensions of Orientalism” (link). Her words seemed to speak to a respect and admiration for Muslim women, and an interest in understanding the nuance of this subject matter.
My flight was booked to go film in NY with the other women. The very last email I received was from a different email address, one that said “clarionfund.org” at the end of it instead of “gmail.com.” They had sent along a pdf with information on filming, contracts to sign, and official info about the film and the group. Right at first, I remember feeling really intimidated at the credentials of the other women going, and nervous about traveling. There was “yoga” on the schedule which seemed pretty fancy to me. I thought about what I could wear during filming that would camouflage my baby weight. At the top it said “National Security through Education, Clarion Fund.”
National security? What does National Security have to do with any of this? Who are these people? I looked back to the front page. There was a graphic of a film reel with images from past blockbuster hits like “The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America,” and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” Their graphic designers had done things like incorporated an Islamic crescent moon and a gun into the typography. Wowzas. I had not heard of the Clarion Fund, so I googled them and perused their website, which was “radicalislam.org” at the time. I felt like I was going to throw up. This group wasn’t about women’s rights. If they were, they wouldn’t have confined their conversation to Muslim countries (duh), and I’m pretty sure they would have been able to find more than 9 women to participate. I was really struck by the fact that this group’s was defined not by what they were fighting for, but what they were against, and everything they do relates back to that.
The same day I got the pdf, I sent them an email backing out.
“I had assumed, for some reason, that you were working on this documentary as kind of an independent project. Up until the last email, we had been corresponding from your personal account, which upheld my assumption that this was an independent film. To be sure, I should have been more vigilant about finding out about the particulars involved in making this film.
I have some issues with the Clarion Fund, with some of their affiliations, and with the messages in their past films. My artwork has a spirit of inclusion, acceptance, respect, and education. I feel that, in general, the picture painted of Muslims is very narrow and monolithic, and I try to create art that helps to expand the definitions people have of Muslims. I am sorry to say that I feel that the Clarion Fund’s past films and some of its prominent members have helped contribute to the perception of Muslims as “others” and, to be frank, I am uncomfortable working with the group.
In addition, I feel that my artwork does not have anything to do with the “threats of political extremism.” As an American-born woman, I really do not have insight into the challenges of women living overseas in the countries you plan to focus on, and have not “experienced firsthand the trials women regularly endure.”
I will need to respectfully back out of participating in this documentary.
…I apologize for telling you this so last-minute. If I had known, or had asked, I would have let you know sooner or declined participation initially. Thank you for your kindness and for being so accommodating. I look forward to seeing the film when it is completed, and hope that my reservations in participating prove to be unfounded.”
I spoke to the woman later, and she apologized and said she had not deliberately withheld the name of the organization. We briefly spoke about the issues I had with the group and the framing of this story. I did get the sense that she very strongly believes that what she is doing is right, and that she believes that she is helping Muslim women. But I don’t think that makes it better, just more frightening.