Deeyah Khan is an award-winning documentary filmmaker of South Asian origin who was raised in Norway. Her work addresses issues surrounding religion, extremism, cultural and societal expectations, questioning stereotypes, with the intention to educate, empower and inspire change. In addition to her efforts behind the camera, she is the founder of the two-time Emmy-winning and the twice BAFTA-nominated media production company Fuuse, which focuses on giving a voice to minorities, and established the magazine ‘sister-hood’, publishing writings from women of Muslim heritage, whether they actively practice the religion or not.
DE: What motivates you to do what you do?
I’m passionate about human rights, women’s liberation, inclusion, free expression, and I’m passionate about telling stories, especially stories that wouldn’t get told otherwise. I always want to better understand big problems in our societies and my filmmaking is my personal way of getting to the heart of the matter. I want to find out what people feel, not just what they say.
Going under the surface was how I created ‘Jihad’ and ‘White Right’. In both cases I have been talking to men involved in violence, which they justified with reference to these exclusionary ideologies. Some of these men were really scary, but it wasn’t necessarily the ideology that was driving them. They all had holes in their lives that they were filling up with this ideology, social problems that they were compensating for through being involved in these groups.
I feel that we can’t necessarily change people by challenging their opinions directly, because there are often reasons why they hold those opinions that are often based in emotion, not fact. We have to think about what made those opinions important to them in the first place. Why would these men, whether white supremacists or jihadis, choose to identify themselves as part of what they perceive to be a superior group, and as the victims of another, ‘inferior’ group? What emotional need does this fulfil? I think these are far more important questions than asking them to explain why they think Islam means striving to live under a caliphate or why they think white people are superior to others.
I get them to put those arguments and their talking points to one side, because I find those arguments to be predictable and boring— I already know what they believe. What I want to understand is why they believe and do the things that they do. I am far more interested in getting them in touch with their emotions rather than having a superficial conversation. It’s always surprising how revealing that can be.
The other big theme in my work is around women and people who exist between cultures. Growing up myself as a South Asian woman in Norway, I’m aware of the different pulls of family and community and how it can clash with the mainstream culture of the societies that we grow up in. I’m very aware of how this impacts upon women, due to cultural taboos around sex, sexuality, self-determination, honour, shame culture and religion. The subject of my first film, ‘Banaz: A Love Story’ was about the strain put upon young people to live up to standards of ‘honour’— the values of their parents and their parents’ community.
These values are in tension with any young person’s desire for freedom and self-expression, particularly when it comes to relationships. Disagreements on the subject of religion can be just as contentious. This is especially true in an environment where extremely reductive and restrictive interpretations of Islam are being violently enforced by some in the community. I explored this in ‘Islam’s Non-Believers’.
With each project, I’m motivated to explore a social problem that I think we need to understand more deeply and to talk about more openly, or that we need to think about differently. And I’m always hoping that I can make a positive impact on how we, as a society, deal with the issue.
DE: Is there a landmark moment in your career that really shifted the way you see the world?
I was abruptly forced out of one lane and had to find another. From a very young age, I followed my father’s career plan. I was brought up in Norway in what was, and still is, a very white-dominated society as a half-Pakistani, half-Afghan daughter of immigrants. It was my father’s perception that my natural talent for singing was the only way that I could make a career for myself in what he perceived to be a racist society with limited opportunities for people of colour. I loved music, but I never really enjoyed performing even though I was proud to share aspects of my South Asian culture.
As I became more successful, I became a target for some of the conservative elements within the local Muslim community, which was beginning to become influenced by extremist expressions of Islam. From being a celebrated symbol of multicultural Norway, I was suddenly in risk of my life, threatened by extremists in my parent’s community. My whole career was over. It was devastating and honestly, I felt lost and broken. But at the same time, I realised that it had finally freed me of being committed to music as an outlet for my creativity. Instead of following my father’s dreams for me I was finally able to focus on the issues that I personally cared about: around feminism, around multiculturalism, around problems arising in families that were caught between cultures.
These solidified in my first movie, ‘Banaz: A Love Story’. I’d really only intended this as a small-scale personal project. It became more popular and successful than I’d ever dreamed. I had found my lane. I finally found my own heart and my own passion, which is to tell stories through my documentary filmmaking.
DE: Who inspires you?
I’m primarily inspired by women. My mother is my greatest inspiration. Also there are so many women that I have had the honour to work with that it would be hard to name them all. Each and every one of them has inspired me and challenged me and supported me. I could not have achieved much without their support.
See the full feature in our current Change edition