The Power of We

Feature on Deeyah Khan
Words by Marianne Clementine Håheim
Photography by Andris Søndrol Visdal
First published in Volume Five


After humbly accepting the University of Oslo’s Human Rights Award of 2015, Deeyah Khan steps off the podium and into the audience to hug her younger brother, Adil. He has always been there to support her, and constantly nags her to move back to Oslo, the city she left at age seventeen for the sake of her own safety. She had to leave because she had become publicly successful as a singer. Adil is a dancer and an actor, but never had to leave. The back of his leather jacket reads ‘freedom.’ The cameras go crazy.

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“They don’t want the final outcome to be a cohesive, diverse, inclusive society. They want us to become very divided,” says Khan of the terrorist group IS. “But at least they’re talking about it. We have to take this conversation out of their hands.”

The documentary film Jihad: a story of the others is Khan raising her voice on the subject—loudly. During the course of two years, she met and interviewed former British extremists in an attempt to understand what drew them to radicalism. She also talks to young British Muslims of today, many of whom feel angry and out of place. Being treated and feeling like ‘the other’ is at the root of the problem for many minority youths in the West, Khan believes.

“Extremists of any kind—be it far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik or the IS—fear a world where we all get along and are able to talk our differences over,” she said in her acceptance speech on November. “If we do not stand together, this cycle of violence will never end. I believe we stand at a crossroads, and that we have to work for our collective future and humanity.”

Khan has no problem acknowledging what she calls ‘the ugliness of living together’—she has experienced it firsthand—but still believes strongly in the power of we. When talking about the radicalization of Western youths, she never fails to call them our young people or our children. 

“I am often faced with racists who tell me how Muslim women are abused. They don’t believe in women’s rights, they don’t believe that women should own their own bodies, but they care about Muslim women’s rights. I am not a violent person, but it does make me want to throw something at them. Racists such as they are monopolizing the genuine suffering of people within minorities to score political points. They do it to create more hatred between people, not because they actually want to solve something. To beat them, we have to get to the point of being honest, open and sincere about making this work.”

You studied music from a very young age, and signed your first recording contract at thirteen. Music was your life for so long. What changed? Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted to pursue filmmaking instead?

“I was living in Atlanta at the time. I had stopped making music, stopped doing interviews, pretty much stopped everything. I didn’t want to be in the public eye anymore. Instead, I started working with youth, women’s and human rights organizations, to try to help. I also stayed in touch with lots of young people who, over the years, had contacted me. They were young people from Norway, England, all kinds of backgrounds. I kept seeing that many of them—or even all of them—didn’t own themselves. They were struggling, but had no way of expressing themselves.”

A young man with a Pakistani background, living in England, was going to be killed by his parents for being gay. A young woman with an Indian background was being forced into a marriage. Another teen was a poet, forced into studying medicine (“or engineering, or whatever”). One case was so bad that Khan had to call the police for help. Similar stories kept piling up, and one day, a switch clicked in her head.

“I remember realizing that the problems these young people had, and the experiences I’ve had, are essentially the same. You are simply not allowed to be who you are.”

Deeyah Khan left her native Oslo in 1995 to escape harassment and threats from members of the conservative Muslim community. Her performances on television, in music videos and at music festivals, sometimes even with her stomach bared, were deemed inappropriate. At one point, she was physically attacked at a concert.

I remember realizing that the problems these young people had, and the experiences I’ve had, are essentially the same. You are simply not allowed to be who you are.

“Sitting in Atlanta, I knew I had been lucky to have a career that gave me access to a lot of resourceful people,” she says today. “I had unique resources and I had to stop being afraid. I had to do something.”

Banaz Mahmod, a young British Kurdish woman, was afraid like Khan. She spoke up, but wasn’t heard. In 2006, Mahmod was brutally killed by her own family in suburban London. She had left her husband, to whom she was married at age seventeen, after years of abuse. Then she fell in love. She was a complete disgrace to her conservative family.

“What I want people to understand, is what this social control does to young people in the streets of this country—or in London or Amsterdam, for that matter. I had to find a way of making people understand what that is really like. I wanted to tell the story of the most extreme outcome of that control, which are honor killings. If I can make people understand what that is, then we can start having a conversation about the entire system of control and policing that is happening to our young people and our women.”

Banaz—A love story could have been told in many different ways. Khan seriously considered making it an opera at one point, but music was eventually ruled out altogether. It had to be a documentary film. I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll figure it out, she thought—much resembling Pippi Longstocking’s famous quote: ‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.’

“‘I’ve never operated a camera or done anything to do with film before, and I have no money, but it can’t be that hard. We’ll download manuals and Google stuff.’ That’s basically what I said to the music colleagues I called up and asked to help me. And they said, okay, let’s do it. My first film is called A love story because of what the story is actually about, but also because of how it was made. We had no money, but we obsessively wanted to tell this story, and figured it out along the way. We made the film with a lot of love.”

‘But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just get up and think you can make a film. You have to go to school first!’ Khan was faced with protests such as this several times during the 3-4 years it took to finish Banaz—A love story.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care. I don’t have the time. I’m going to make this film.’ I didn’t care whether anyone would pay to see it. My plan was to give it away, put it online for free, as a resource for women’s rights organizations or anyone who could use it as awareness training. I just wanted to help people understand. Banaz was never supposed to be on TV or do any of the things that it’s done.”  

And then she won an Emmy Award. “It’s so bizarre. I mean, we had no idea what we were doing. It wasn’t meant to happen,” she laughs.

The film came out in 2012 and is still living a vital life of its own. Khan still receives e-mails from schools, universities and others who want to use it as part of their training. But has it reached the people who need it the most—the young girls and boys living, or perhaps just existing, under this social control? Or the conservative communities that bear the blame?

“Girls, and boys too, who are impacted by this, don’t need the film. It’s already happening to them, so they don’t need a film to tell them what’s going on. The film is needed by people who are in a position to help, such as the police, the school systems and teachers, social services and crisis centers... If a young woman is at risk, they are all on the first line of contact. If they don’t have the necessary knowledge, they are not going to help her, or help her in the wrong way.”

Banaz Mahmod went to the police in England five times, and explicitly told them she was being followed by family members, and felt threatened. ‘If anything happens to me, it’s them,’ she tells a police officer in the devastating police surveillance recordings retrieved for the documentary. They didn’t recognize the threat she was under.

“We have to make authorities in the West understand what social control and honor killings are all about, how to recognize the issues and how to help. The conservative communities are part of doing this, so a film isn’t going to change their minds. What is going to change their minds is being locked up in prison. We have to make them see that violence against women does get punished in our countries. An interesting thing that has happened since Banaz is that some young men from the community are getting in touch with me. They’re not the kind of men who would commit such a crime, but rather men who understand the pressures and want to be involved, but don’t know how. This isn’t just a women’s issue.”

Did you notice any similarities between the young people you interviewed for ‘Jihad’ and ‘Banaz’?

“They share the feeling of being caught in between. These young people do not feel they are accepted or truly belong in the majority of society, and are also struggling at home. They are simply not able to live up to the expectations that the family, especially their fathers, put up, or to fit into the control and limits that are imposed upon them. Myself, I come from a liberal home, but even I didn’t make the cut. You will never feel good enough. Both my films are about people who, in different ways, suffer and try to deal with it, in their own ways, unsuccessfully.”

What is it that they need?

“They need to be heard, seen, understood and included. If Banaz had been treated like she was ours, she would still be alive. These are our kids and we have to treat them as such. Both films resonate with my own experience in Norway. I was treated one way by the Pakistani community, and when things got bad, the wider society treated me with silence. The feeling I got, was that I was not ‘theirs.’ If I had belonged to them, the Norwegians, they would have spoken up and said that what was happening was wrong. In between is a very lonely place to be. If you’re young and living your life in between, and somebody comes along and says exactly what you need to hear, your loyalty will shift immediately.”

Luckily, the IS or jihadism weren’t there as alternatives for me back then. Instead, creativity became my outlet to express feelings of loneliness and alienation. I didn’t belong either here or there, but creativity became my third space.

‘You have to leave. We cannot protect you any longer.’ Deeyah Khan was seventeen years old when her mother spoke these words. Even though the family insisted on her right to express herself, the situation was getting out of hand. It was too dangerous for Deeyah to stay in Oslo.

“Luckily, the IS or jihadism weren’t there as alternatives for me back then. Instead, creativity became my outlet to express feelings of loneliness and alienation. I didn’t belong either here or there, but creativity became my third space. Art and creativity were a global community that I could plug into and belong. Most young people don’t have that.”

Khan is a strong believer in the power of art. She knows that art can fill the third space and make life bearable, but also believes that it can help inspire and create social change. She speaks fondly of art as an emotional language that speaks from and to the heart, surpassing categories such as language, class and education. Are we missing something in the midst of the current refugee crisis?

“I think it’s important that we use art to tell different stories, more stories. Right now, the only stories that are being told are through the lens of journalism. Journalism can become very polarizing in itself, very flat, driven on headlines. I think art is a crucial part of stretching the space between people, allowing us to have deeper, broader conversations. Art is an instrument we should apply to all the difficult questions of today, to help us ask them in different ways. Right now, we need to explore all the possibilities of how we can have conversations where we actually listen to each other, instead of getting scared and panicking. The news headlines do exactly that to people, they make you go ‘we’re all going to die, we’re all screwed!’ We have to stretch out that panicky space, and artists can be part of that process.”

Historically, Khan says, art has played an important role in Eastern societies in exactly that way. It should provoke, but also bridge. 

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“I think art can be part of the solution for our young people. When filming Jihad, I talked to teens who would, after talking for hours, eventually tell me that they were actually poets. One young man had been working with fabric art, but wasn’t allowed to do it anymore. I’m not saying that frustrated artists become jihadis, but there’s something interesting in this discovery. For myself, for my brother, and for a lot of people, creativity and art gives you a non-violent outlet for sometimes very violent feelings. The jihadis I spoke to didn’t have any other way to express themselves, no space to ask questions, examine themselves, be angry or challenge things. Everyone has those feelings and they won’t go away. They are going to come out in one way or another.

For those young men, they came out through violence, because no other outlet was available. In the UK, the government is currently shutting down youth clubs and other places where young people can meet each other, discuss, and make art and media.

They have started doing the same in Norway. It’s a massive mistake.”

Many young people, also the jihadis Khan has met, are politically interested. “They have so many questions and thoughts,” she says, but nobody wants to listen. “People will say, ‘But you’re an extremist, we don’t want to deal with that, we should ban such speech.’ We really shouldn’t. We should pick it apart and look at it. If we don’t engage with these kids, somebody else will. People who have questions, will find answers, and we have to help our kids find better ones. The IS will spend hundreds of hours recruiting just one person online. Our efforts at deradicalization must measure up to that.”

Art makes it easier to meet and talk to people about difficult topics, Khan insists. “If I were to walk into room and say, ‘Hey, we are going to talk about why some people kill their daughters to save the family’s honor,’ they would completely shut down. If I instead were to show them Banaz first, the film might open a little crack in their hearts and make them a little more willing to have the conversation. As a society, we need to create such spaces in which people can meet each other.”

This is why she does what she does, Khan says, why she taught herself the ropes of filmmaking, to create work where people—even for just one split second—can recognize themselves in the other.

“We need to empathize with each other. I have to understand what it’s like to be you. I’m not trying to be flower power,” she emphasizes, “this is really important, and art can make it possible. Other times, of course, art should provoke, put up a mirror to our society.”

Your life has been threatened several times. Are you still afraid?

“No. Not any more. I was very scared— debilitatingly scared—but I was very young. I didn’t understand what was going on. I am no longer scared, first of all, because life is too short for that. Secondly, because if we don’t have these difficult, or even dangerous, conversations, nothing will ever change. The consequence of us being afraid is that our younger generations suffer, and actually bear the brunt of it. I think that, for the sake of truly living, we have to be fearless.”

Being fearless is not the same as being careless, though. Deeyah Khan is still aware of her surroundings. There are certain precautions to take, but she refuses to stop breathing. 

“I can’t stop living because I’m afraid of what might happen. Fear is what extremists of any sort want. They want us to be afraid and to stop living, which means we have to live, laugh, and be friends. They want to separate us, so we have to come closer together. We’re in this together and huge power comes from that. We have to keep our hearts open, as hard as it is. It is hard for me to sit down with and talk to men who are currently extremists or former jihadis—they’re not my friends or even people I like—but I still have to try to understand. Just because somebody else doesn’t behave like a human being, doesn’t mean I have to stop too.”


Deeyah Kahn received her second Emmy Award last week: Best International Current Affairs for the documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy.

With a US president propagating anti-Muslim propaganda, the far-right gaining ground in German elections, hate crime rising in the UK, and divisive populist rhetoric infecting political and public discourse across western democracies, Deeyah Khan’s WHITE RIGHT: MEETING THE ENEMY asks why. (fuuse.com)

Available on Netflix!