Tour culminates in the capital after six, impactful months
WASHINGTON, DC — It began as a space for a small group of young women in Canada to tell their stories, an experiment in the healing power of art.
As an enraptured audience listened to five young women on a stage at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, the resonance and evolution of the project was clear.
Farrah Khan recalled the beginning.
“I wanted to have a space where we could speak candidly with each other and create a space for the multiplicity of our stories,” said Khan, a counselor at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic who co-founded Pomegranate Tree Group, a community-based organization ommitted to healing justice.
That yearning for space grew into “Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project,” a poignant, 64-page comic book written by six young South Asian survivors of violence who wanted to challenge how “izzat,” an Urdu word that refers to the concept of “honor,” has been used to rationalize violence.
The comic book format, the authors says, provided an accessible way to tackle very difficult and complex topics—like trying to decide whether to accept a forced marriage or say goodbye to your family and everything you know. The authors describe that decision, in a play adapted from the book, to the feeling of “your soul being pulled from between your ribs” and “breaking apart like a cracking egg.”
“How can we tell our families ‘no?’ How can we ask to be safe and to be held? This book is a real love letter to our families, and I hope that you see that when you read it,” Khan, herself a survivor of violence, told a packed room at Busboys and Poets.
A powerful chapter of the project, which Khan never imagined at its onset five years ago in Toronto, came to a close March 19, as a seven-month U.S. tour organized by Tahirih Justice Center and Pomegranate Tree Group to raise awareness of forced marriage wrapped up in America’s capital.
Honoring Our Heartbeats: A Tour to End Forced Marriage in the U.S. began in September 2014 and included stops in New York City, Houston, San Francisco, New Brunswick, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
“This has truly been an epic tour,” said Heather Heiman, the Project Manager of the Forced Marriage Initiative at Tahirih. “The stories from the IZZAT Project are told from a South Asian perspective, but the issues the comic book raises, including forced marriage, truly affect us all.”
Heiman said one important goal of the national tour was to increase resources and protections for anyone facing or fleeing forced marriage across the United States. A 2011 Tahirih study found as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage in the United States over a two-year period. The study revealed the problem impacts diverse communities in the United States from more than 56 countries, including Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sudan, as well as multi-generational American families, and those from varied socio-economic and religious backgrounds.
“We have to be ready to support everyone who might be struggling with this human rights violation,” Heiman said.
Supported through grants from Foundation for a Just Society and NoVo Foundation, the tour has reached hundreds of people from every corner of the country. As part of the tour, 6,000 comic books were printed and distributed for free. Each tour stop included training workshops for service providers, issue briefings geared to legal and policy professionals, community forums, and multimedia performances featuring the play “When We Leave” and the film “Caged” by Pomegranate Tree Group.
At the start of the tour, Tahirih launched a petition to President Obama to create a national action plan to end forced marriage in the United States. To date, it has garnered over 112,000 signatures. The tour and the petition were a catalyst for a meeting on forced marriage with the White House Council on Women and Girls on March 18.
Tahirih is advocating for comprehensive policy solutions to this issue that are based on collaboration with survivors and prioritize outreach, education, and services for those facing or fleeing forced marriages.
“This tour has been a real force for action to address forced marriage, which for too long has been a hidden, yet serious problem in the United States,” said Heiman, an attorney who helped launch the Forced Marriage Initiative in 2011 in response to women and girls who were reaching out for help in resisting forced marriages, but were unable to find it in the United States.
Tahirih and Pomegranate Tree Group collaborated with community-based organizations in each city on the tour to spread the “Heartbeats” message of resiliency and healing. The painful toll that forced marriage has on survivors, who are often unable to find the help they need, was a central theme at the tour’s finale events.
Firoza Chic Dabby, a tour partner and the co-director of the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, shared the tragic end to one forced marriage case.
“Last year,” she said, “I couldn’t stop the forced marriage and forced departure of a college student carrying a heart full of fear, surrounded by 10 honor-driven relatives on a plane. A few days before the wedding, she killed herself. I couldn’t have stopped that, but her mother and father and family members could have,” said Dabby, who wrote a moving forward to the special U.S. edition of “Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project.”
The U.S. tour has had a profound impact on the young survivors and writers who started it all in an intimate space in Canada.
They say they’ve been moved by the compassion and gratitude they’ve received from tour attendants—from service providers to forced marriage survivors—at every stop.
“Our stories resonated with them,” said Chenthoori, a Pomegranate Tree Group performer and university student who was raised in Toronto.
“It is so great when … people come to you and they’re like, ‘[Forced marriage] is something I’m going through,’ or ‘my friend of mine is going through this, and I didn’t know how to talk about it,'” said Mariam, who wrote the story “Caged” in “Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project” about her experience resisting a forced marriage.
Khan, the co-founder of Pomegranate Tree Group, can’t help but marvel at the public space she and her fellow artists have carved out.
“Every time [they] are on stage, it reminds me that we have a right to be here. We should never be ashamed about who were are or what we survived or who we want to be. I think women of color very rarely get spaces like this. Women of color very rarely get to speak about our stories unfiltered,” the counselor said.
The tour, she said, was a potent reminder that those “stories matter.”
Khan often reminds herself and those she counsels that “healing is a process.”
It is one, with all its twists and turns, that these young women have fully embraced. Rather than an end, the closing of Honoring Our Heartbeats: A Tour to End Forced Marriage in the U.S. feels like a beginning.
“I think if I could take one thing away from this tour, it’s that our work isn’t done,” said Kathana Ratnakara, a “Heartbeats” author. “We need to create more spaces for women to express themselves and to share their stories.”
HEARTBEATS TOUR: BY THE NUMBERS
non-profits, law firms, and universities who partnered with Tahirih and Pomegranate Tree Group to promote the goals of the Heartbeats tour.
advocates, attorneys, and survivors consulted and engaged through issue briefings about Tahirih’s policy proposals to address forced marriage at the federal and state level.
service providers equipped to assist forced marriage victims through training workshops that provided tools, tips, and guidance for identifying and responding to cases.
community members reached through powerful multimedia performances that amplified often unheard survivor voices and illuminated the experiences of young women navigating forced marriage and family violence.
“Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project” comic books printed for free distribution along the tour.
reach, by views, of the #HonorYourHeartbeat social media campaign to spread a message of resilience and healing in the face of violence against women and girls.
signatures on a petition to President Obama to create a national action plan to end forced marriage in the United States.