Deeyah Khan
1,447,528 views • 20:11

When I was a child, I knew I had superpowers. That's right.


I thought I was absolutely amazing because I could understand and relate to the feelings of brown people, like my grandfather, a conservative Muslim guy. And also, I could understand my Afghan mother, my Pakistani father, not so religious but laid-back, fairly liberal. And of course, I could understand and relate to the feelings of white people. The white Norwegians of my country. You know, white, brown, whatever — I loved them all. I understood them all, even if they didn't always understand each other; they were all my people.

My father, though, was always really worried. He kept saying that even with the best education, I was not going to get a fair shake. I would still face discrimination, according to him. And that the only way to be accepted by white people would be to become famous. Now, mind you, he had this conversation with me when I was seven years old. So while I'm seven years old, he said, "Look, so it's either got to be sports, or it's got to be music." He didn't know anything about sports — bless him — so it was music. So when I was seven years old, he gathered all my toys, all my dolls, and he threw them all away. In exchange he gave me a crappy little Casio keyboard and —


Yeah. And singing lessons. And he forced me, basically, to practice for hours and hours every single day. Very quickly, he also had me performing for larger and larger audiences, and bizarrely, I became almost a kind of poster child for Norwegian multiculturalism. I felt very proud, of course. Because even the newspapers at this point were starting to write nice things about brown people, so I could feel that my superpower was growing.

So when I was 12 years old, walking home from school, I took a little detour because I wanted to buy my favorite sweets called "salty feet." I know they sound kind of awful, but I absolutely love them. They're basically these little salty licorice bits in the shape of feet. And now that I say it out loud, I realize how terrible that sounds, but be that as it may, I absolutely love them. So on my way into the store, there was this grown white guy in the doorway blocking my way. So I tried to walk around him, and as I did that, he stopped me and he was staring at me, and he spit in my face, and he said, "Get out of my way you little black bitch, you little Paki bitch, go back home where you came from." I was absolutely horrified. I was staring at him. I was too afraid to wipe the spit off my face, even as it was mixing with my tears. I remember looking around, hoping that any minute now, a grown-up is going to come and make this guy stop. But instead, people kept hurrying past me and pretended not to see me. I was very confused because I was thinking, well, "My white people, come on! Where are they? What's going on? How come they're not coming and rescuing me?" So, needless to say, I didn't buy the sweets. I just ran home as fast as I could.

Things were still OK, though, I thought. As time went on, the more successful I became, I eventually started also attracting harassment from brown people. Some men in my parent's community felt that it was unacceptable and dishonorable for a woman to be involved in music and to be so present in the media. So very quickly, I was starting to become attacked at my own concerts. I remember one of the concerts, I was onstage, I lean into the audience and the last thing I see is a young brown face, and the next thing I know is some sort of chemical is thrown in my eyes and I remember I couldn't really see and my eyes were watering but I kept singing anyway. I was spit in the face in the streets of Oslo, this time by brown men. They even tried to kidnap me at one point. The death threats were endless. I remember one older bearded guy stopped me in the street one time, and he said, "The reason I hate you so much is because you make our daughters think they can do whatever they want." A younger guy warned me to watch my back. He said music is un-Islamic and the job of whores, and if you keep this up, you are going to be raped and your stomach will be cut out so that another whore like you will not be born.

Again, I was so confused. I couldn't understand what was going on. My brown people now starting to treat me like this — how come? Instead of bridging the worlds, the two worlds, I felt like I was falling between my two worlds. I suppose, for me, spit was kryptonite.

So by the time I was 17 years old, the death threats were endless, and the harassment was constant. It got so bad, at one point my mother sat me down and said, "Look, we can no longer protect you, we can no longer keep you safe, so you're going to have to go." So I bought a one-way ticket to London, I packed my suitcase and I left. My biggest heartbreak at that point was that nobody said anything. I had a very public exit from Norway. My brown people, my white people — nobody said anything. Nobody said, "Hold on, this is wrong. Support this girl, protect this girl, because she is one of us." Nobody said that. Instead, I felt like — you know at the airport, on the baggage carousel you have these different suitcases going around and around, and there's always that one suitcase left at the end, the one that nobody wants, the one that nobody comes to claim. I felt like that. I'd never felt so alone. I'd never felt so lost.

So, after coming to London, I did eventually resume my music career. Different place, but unfortunately the same old story. I remember a message sent to me saying that I was going to be killed and that rivers of blood were going to flow and that I was going to be raped many times before I died. By this point, I have to say, I was actually getting used to messages like this, but what became different was that now they started threatening my family.

So once again, I packed my suitcase, I left music and I moved to the US. I'd had enough. I didn't want to have anything to do with this anymore. And I was certainly not going to be killed for something that wasn't even my dream — it was my father's choice.

So I kind of got lost. I kind of fell apart. But I decided that what I wanted to do is spend the next however many years of my life supporting young people and to try to be there in some small way, whatever way that I could. I started volunteering for various organizations that were working with young Muslims inside of Europe. And, to my surprise, what I found was so many of these young people were suffering and struggling. They were facing so many problems with their families and their communities who seemed to care more about their honor and their reputation than the happiness and the lives of their own kids. I started feeling like maybe I wasn't so alone, maybe I wasn't so weird. Maybe there are more of my people out there.

The thing is, what most people don't understand is that there are so many of us growing up in Europe who are not free to be ourselves. We're not allowed to be who we are. We are not free to marry or to be in relationships with people that we choose. We can't even pick our own career. This is the norm in the Muslim heartlands of Europe. Even in the freest societies in the world, we're not free. Our lives, our dreams, our future does not belong to us, it belongs to our parents and their community. I found endless stories of young people who are lost to all of us, who are invisible to all of us but who are suffering, and they are suffering alone. Kids we are losing to forced marriages, to honor-based violence and abuse.

Eventually, I realized after several years of working with these young people, that I will not be able to keep running. I can't spend the rest of my life being scared and hiding and that I'm actually going to have to do something. And I also realized that my silence, our silence, allows abuse like this to continue. So I decided that I wanted to put my childhood superpower to some use by trying to make people on the different sides of these issues understand what it's like to be a young person stuck between your family and your country.

So I started making films, and I started telling these stories. And I also wanted people to understand the deadly consequences of us not taking these problems seriously.

So the first film I made was about Banaz. She was a 17-year-old Kurdish girl in London. She was obedient, she did whatever her parents wanted. She tried to do everything right. She married some guy that her parents chose for her, even though he beat and raped her constantly. And when she tried to go to her family for help, they said, "Well, you got to go back and be a better wife." Because they didn't want a divorced daughter on their hands because, of course, that would bring dishonor on the family. She was beaten so badly her ears would bleed, and when she finally left and she found a young man that she chose and she fell in love with, the community and the family found out and she disappeared. She was found three months later. She'd been stuffed into a suitcase and buried underneath the house. She had been strangled, she had been beaten to death by three men, three cousins, on the orders of her father and uncle. The added tragedy of Banaz's story is that she had gone to the police in England five times asking for help, telling them that she was going to be killed by her family. The police didn't believe her so they didn't do anything.

And the problem with this is that not only are so many of our kids facing these problems within their families and within their families' communities, but they're also meeting misunderstandings and apathy in the countries that they grow up in. When their own families betray them, they look to the rest of us, and when we don't understand, we lose them.

So while I was making this film, several people said to me, "Well, Deeyah, you know, this is just their culture, this is just what those people do to their kids and we can't really interfere." I can assure you being murdered is not my culture. You know? And surely people who look like me, young women who come from backgrounds like me, should be subject to the same rights, the same protections as anybody else in our country, why not?

So, for my next film, I wanted to try and understand why some of our young Muslim kids in Europe are drawn to extremism and violence. But with that topic, I also recognized that I was going to have to face my worst fear: the brown men with beards. The same men, or similar men, to the ones that have hounded me for most of my life. Men that I've been afraid of most of my life. Men that I've also deeply disliked, for many, many years.

So I spent the next two years interviewing convicted terrorists, jihadis and former extremists. What I already knew, what was very obvious already, was that religion, politics, Europe's colonial baggage, also Western foreign policy failures of recent years, were all a part of the picture. But what I was more interested in finding out was what are the human, what are the personal reasons why some of our young people are susceptible to groups like this. And what really surprised me was that I found wounded human beings. Instead of the monsters that I was looking for, that I was hoping to find — quite frankly because it would have been very satisfying — I found broken people. Just like Banaz, I found that these young men were torn apart from trying to bridge the gaps between their families and the countries that they were born in. And what I also learned is that extremist groups, terrorist groups are taking advantage of these feelings of our young people and channeling that — cynically — channeling that toward violence. "Come to us," they say. "Reject both sides, your family and your country because they reject you. For your family, their honor is more important than you and for your country, a real Norwegian, Brit or a French person will always be white and never you." They're also promising our young people the things that they crave: significance, heroism, a sense of belonging and purpose, a community that loves and accepts them. They make the powerless feel powerful. The invisible and the silent are finally seen and heard. This is what they're doing for our young people. Why are these groups doing this for our young people and not us?

The thing is, I'm not trying to justify or excuse any of the violence. What I am trying to say is that we have to understand why some of our young people are attracted to this. I would like to also show you, actually — these are childhood photos of some of the guys in the film. What really struck me is that so many of them — I never would have thought this — but so many of them have absent or abusive fathers. And several of these young guys ended up finding caring and compassionate father figures within these extremist groups. I also found men brutalized by racist violence, but who found a way to stop feeling like victims by becoming violent themselves. In fact, I found something, to my horror, that I recognized. I found the same feelings that I felt as a 17-year-old as I fled from Norway. The same confusion, the same sorrow, the same feeling of being betrayed and not belonging to anyone. The same feeling of being lost and torn between cultures.

Having said that, I did not choose destruction, I chose to pick up a camera instead of a gun. And the reason I did that is because of my superpower. I could see that understanding is the answer, instead of violence. Seeing human beings with all their virtues and all their flaws instead of continuing the caricatures: the us and them, the villains and victims. I'd also finally come to terms with the fact that my two cultures didn't have to be on a collision course but instead became a space where I found my own voice. I stopped feeling like I had to pick a side, but this took me many, many years. There are so many of our young people today who are struggling with these same issues, and they're struggling with this alone. And this leaves them open like wounds. And for some, the worldview of radical Islam becomes the infection that festers in these open wounds.

There's an African proverb that says, "If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth." I would like to ask — to Muslim parents and Muslim communities, will you love and care for your children without forcing them to meet your expectations? Can you choose them instead of your honor? Can you understand why they're so angry and alienated when you put your honor before their happiness? Can you try to be a friend to your child so that they can trust you and want to share with you their experiences, rather than having to seek it somewhere else?

And to our young people tempted by extremism, can you acknowledge that your rage is fueled by pain? Will you find the strength to resist those cynical old men who want to use your blood for their own profits? Can you find a way to live? Can you see that the sweetest revenge is for you to live a happy, full and free life? A life defined by you and nobody else. Why do you want to become just another dead Muslim kid? And for the rest of us, when will we start listening to our young people? How can we support them in redirecting their pain into something more constructive? They think we don't like them. They think we don't care what happens to them. They think we don't accept them. Can we find a way to make them feel differently? What will it take for us to see them and notice them before they become either the victims or the perpetrators of violence? Can we make ourselves care about them and consider them to be our own? And not just be outraged when the victims of violence look like ourselves? Can we find a way to reject hatred and heal the divisions between us? The thing is we cannot afford to give up on each other or on our kids, even if they've given up on us.

We are all in this together. And in the long term, revenge and violence will not work against extremists. Terrorists want us to huddle in our houses in fear, closing our doors and our hearts. They want us to tear open more wounds in our societies so that they can use them to spread their infection more widely. They want us to become like them: intolerant, hateful and cruel.

The day after the Paris attacks, a friend of mine sent this photo of her daughter. This is a white girl and an Arab girl. They're best friends. This image is the kryptonite for extremists. These two little girls with their superpowers are showing the way forward towards a society that we need to build together, a society that includes and supports, rather than rejects our kids.

Thank you for listening.