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Pakistan: How ’A Girl in the River’ helped end honour killing in Pakistan

Thursday 13 October 2016, by siawi3


Published Feb 19, 2016 03:34pm

I want my work to make people uncomfortable, to make them think: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Maliha Rehman

The Oscar-winning filmmaker on her motivations and how A Girl in the River could help end honour killing in Pakistan

What do you do if you’re nominated to win an Oscar? If you’re Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the days preceding the ceremony are jam-packed with long talks supporting a cause that you are dedicated to, working through political red-tape while trying to get an important bill passed, winding your way through extensive travel plans and squeezing in alone-time with your two little daughters.

Some time is dwelt upon selecting the wardrobe for the Oscars and constructing an acceptance speech, on the chance of winning, but these considerations are hardly the be all and end all of Sharmeen’s day.

“Right now I’m just very focused on prompting the stakeholders in getting the Anti-Honour Killing bill passed,” she explains. “If I succeed, then that, in reality, will be my real win.”

Photo: Sharmeen met with the Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif to discuss the eradication of honour killings in Pakistan - Publicity photo

From honour killing to the plight of acid victims, the inculcation of children in Taliban armies and Lahore’s waning musical arts to beyond Pakistan — this is not the first time Sharmeen has told a story that is distressingly true.

Sharmeen’s A Girl in the River — The Price of Forgiveness depicts the horror of honour killing within Pakistan. The documentary’s protagonist, a girl quite literally being thrown into the river by her father and uncle, manages to survive being killed in the name of ‘honour’. With the aid of the local police, she gets her assaulters arrested but is then pressurised by her family to forgive them, and allow them to go free.
Legal loopholes in the system provide the rare survivors of honour killings to forgive family members. “Already, this documentary has made enough noise to initiate countrywide discourse,” observes Sharmeen. “That is a small victory in itself."

This story, shocking though it may be, is a sad reality. Legal loopholes in the system provide the rare survivors of honour killings to forgive family members who tried to kill them because they have done a shameful act, such as be suspected of adultery. “Already, this documentary has made enough noise to initiate countrywide discourse,” observes Sharmeen. “That is a small victory in itself. The system needs to recognise that these are people committing cold-blooded premeditated murders and that they can’t be allowed to go free.”

As Pakistan’s one and only Oscar award winner — her Saving Face brought home the coveted statuette back in 2012 — Sharmeen’s name immediately adds credibility to her efforts against honour killing. Needless to say, the documentary’s nomination at this year’s 88th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Short Subject category has helped augment support across the country.

Photo: Sharmeen and Saving Face co-director Daniel Junge show off their Oscars at the 2012 Academy Awards - Photo courtesy

Following the announcement of the Oscar nomination, PM Nawaz Sharif promised to ‘rid Pakistan of this evil by bringing in appropriate legislation’. “We hope to have the documentary initially screened at the Prime Minister house, following which we want to show it to students in universities and colleges and air it in local cinemas for a week,” plans Sharmeen.

A woman with a cause

From honour killings to the plight of acid victims, the inculcation of children in terrorist Taliban armies and Lahore’s waning musical arts to beyond Pakistan, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and the harsh realities faced by policewomen working for the United Nations in Haiti — this is not the first time Sharmeen has told a story that is distressingly true.

“I have worked across the globe, from Pakistan to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan. The mindsets and cultures may differ but there are brave and resilient people everywhere who want the truth to be spoken out loud,” she says. “Most people in Pakistan just know me from 2012, when I won the Oscar for Saving Face but in a span of 16 years, I have actually filmed over 20 documentaries. My sole driving force has been to tell stories that need to be highlighted. I want people to feel uncomfortable when they see my work, I want to make them think and perhaps, initiate an impetus for change.”

Photo: On location during the shooting of Women of the Holy Kingdom and Afghanistan Unveiled - Photos courtesy Sharmeen Obaid’s official Facebook page

Quite often, her line of work has led her into risky territory. She’s interviewed young boys in Taliban refugee camps, worked under extreme scrutiny in Saudi Arabia and more often than ever, fought rigid mindsets that find nothing wrong with seeking revenge by burning a woman or killing her for honour. “I don’t get scared easily,” she explains. “My father once told me that if I spoke the truth, he would always stand by me and so would the world. I am very fatalistic and believe that when your time to go comes, it comes. That means you should just go on and do what you have to do.”
It is difficult to equate this glamorous side to Sharmeen’s life with the gritty realities that define her work. She’s wandered the slums of Karachi, sans make-up and head covered and yet she is just as much at ease in designer wear at the Oscars red carpet.

Saving Face raised enough hue and cry to persuade the Punjab government to allow acid-burning cases to be processed more quickly. And now, Sharmeen’s crusading against honour killings wherever she can; in talks with students at local universities, within the erudite boundaries of the recent Karachi Literature Festival, over social media and soon enough, on the Oscars’ global stage.

The glamour zone

As pre-Oscar events begin, Sharmeen’s already flying back and forth between the US and Pakistan. At the 88th Academy Awards nominees’ luncheon this week, she was spotted wearing Sania Maskatiya and jewellery by Sherezad Rahimtoola. “It’s going to be fairly glamorous, there’s a very illustrious list of nominees this time,” she said before leaving. The images of her filtering in over social media — with Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Steven Spielberg — attest to this.

Photo: Sharmeen was spotted hobnobbing with Hollywood bigwigs like Mark Ruffalo at the Oscar nominees luncheon earlier this month - Photo courtesy Sharmeen’s official Facebook page

It is difficult to equate this glamorous side to Sharmeen’s life with the gritty realities that define her work. She’s wandered the slums of Karachi, sans make-up and head covered and yet she is just as much at ease in designer wear at the Oscars red carpet. The corridors of the SOC Films building are lined with posters of hard-hitting documentaries but a shelf within her office also shows her hobnobbing with the rich and famous; at the Oscars, with Meryl Streep in countless images and shaking hands with Hilary Clinton.
“I may know some [influential] people but it is because I have slowly worked my way through the ranks, filming in conflict zones, drawing attention to issues that matter,” she points out. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy attending the events and the glamour. I work hard and then I enjoy myself.

In 2012, she was slotted as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, with actress Angelina Jolie writing her introduction. Also, in a concert in London in 2013, Madonna aligned with her to help raise funds for the construction of a school in Karachi’s slums.

“I may know some people but it is because I have slowly worked my way through the ranks, filming in conflict zones, drawing attention to issues that matter,” she points out. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy attending the events and the glamour. I work hard and then I enjoy myself. On a more important note, a global platform like the Oscars allows me to share my message with stars from around the world.”

Photo: Sharmeen with Song of Lahore co-director Andy Schocken at the documentary’s New York screening, hosted by Meryl Streep - Photo courtesy Sharmeen Obaid’s official Facebook page

“It’s been a lucky year for me,” she continues. “My film Song of Lahore premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 and its premiere in New York in November was hosted by Meryl Streep. Another documentary, Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It (2015) was also the year when we released 3 Bahadur under the banner of Waadi Animations. As Pakistan’s first-ever animated movie scripted entirely in Urdu, it was very successful.”

A sequel to 3 Bahadur is already under production and is set to release by the end of this year. Also in the pipeline is a documentary titled Pakistan Remembers, narrating the changes in Pakistan’s major cities. Paying homage to the past through photographs and memorabilia and then zoning in on the present, the film will rely heavily on the archives of the Citizens Archive Pakistan (CAP), an organisation co-founded by Sharmeen, dedicating to preserving Pakistan’s heritage.

A cause for Pakistan

“I have always been passionate about women and children and at 37, I am lucky to be doing work that helps and entertains them,” says Sharmeen. But the causes close to her heart are often those that resonate with every Pakistani. In an effort to convict and imprison honour killing enforcers, Sharmeen’s team has uploaded an online petition, urging the PM to curb the heinous crime altogether.

Despite the publicity generated by the Oscar nomination, only 1,500 signees had been collated at the time at which this story is written. To fight against inhumanity and prejudice shouldn’t have to be just Sharmeen’s cause. And ideally, an Oscar nomination shouldn’t be required to remind us of it.

This article was originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 14th, 2016



’If people don’t go to jail for honour killing, how will they know it’s a crime?’ — Updated Feb 26, 2016 07:36am

"How is this going down in your home country? You keep poking your lens where it’s least welcome," CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour asks filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy during an interview on "Amanpour".

"I think it’s very important to have these difficult conversations. We aren’t going to make the country a better place if we keep glorifying the good things about it. We must talk about issues that confront Pakistan ─ and there are many issues that confront the country," Chinoy replies.

The filmmaker, who won an Oscar in 2012 for her documentary "Saving Face" which highlights the plight of acid attack survivors, is in the running for another golden statuette this year.

Her documentary on honour killing, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness", is one of five films to be nominated for an Oscar in the ’Best Documentary ─ Short’ category at the 88th Academy Awards this year.

Chinoy’s critics have, in the past, taken issue with her highlighting what they call the ’negative side’ of Pakistan. But she thinks "It’s very important to have these difficult conversations... It’s very important to shake the status quo."

"The most hopeful thing about this film is that it started a national discourse in Pakistan about honour killings ─ something we desperately needed to have," she says.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chinoy tells Amanpour, announced that his government "will introduce legislation as early as next week, talking about how honour killings need to be stopped, that there is no place for them in society".

"He has said there is no place for honour killings in Islam... For a prime minister of Pakistan to make such statements sends a very positive signal. It doesn’t mean honour killings will end tomorrow but it does mean that the leadership is taking this very seriously and they will have laws that will counter it," she says.
’Nothing wrong with killing women’

But, Amanpour asks, even if PM Nawaz stands up for law and order and basic women’s rights, what about what happens in villages and homes? "It’s families taking the law into their own hands."

Chinoy agrees. "Right now, as the law stands, when a father kills his daughter or a brother kills his sister, the family can forgive. The wife can forgive her husband, the parents can forgive their son, so very few people go to jail for honour killings in Pakistan."

Know more: The law of forgiveness

What that means, she says, is that in entire villages, towns and cities, people know of others who have killed women in their family and are walking free ─ Which gives the impression "that there is nothing wrong with killing women", she says.

She stresses the need for a law that acts as a deterrent to the practice of honour killings. "We need to start sending people to jail, we need to start making examples of them," she says. "If people don’t go to jail for it, how will they start thinking it is a serious crime?"
Saba’s story

"One day, I was reading a newspaper story about a girl who had been shot and thrown in a river in a gunny sack and survived in what appeared to be an attempted honour killing. I called up the hospital and arrived there... And right from the beginning, the girl was determined to fight. She was determined for her story to be told, because she said she didn’t want any other woman in Pakistan to go through what she went through."

However, the existence of the law of forgiveness and pressure from the community has forced Saba to forgive her attackers.

Read: ‘Honour’ attack survivor fears for life

"Her father is free from jail. [Due to] the loophole that exists in the law in Pakistan, the community forced Saba to forgive her father and uncle. They are walking free, but have given a guarantee that they will not harm her again. But she is lucky, because in many cases when the culprits walk free, they do come back and kill," Chinoy says.

Saba, whose father and uncle tried to kill her for marrying a man of her choice ended up staying with her husband, but is still living near her parents.

"She did, indeed, get married to him. She’s had a son with him. She’s living with her in-laws right now in a home not far from where her parents live."

Chinoy says Saba wants to raise her son to be someone who respects women.

"She said, "If the prime minister changes the law, I’m going to go to Islamabad to his office and thank him in person"."



Published Jan 22, 2016 01:29pm

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s petition to Nawaz Sharif seeks state support to eradicate honour killings

Last week ace documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary - Short Subject. But more than that , it was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s call to end honour killings which restored many people’s faith in the system.

To make sure that the PM walks the talk, Sharmeen has started a petition to get at least 5,000 signatures in order to show the PM that Pakistanis want to abolish the heinous practice of honour killing.

The PM had said honour killings was ’’evil’’ and had also congratulated the director for bagging the nomination: “Honour killings, the theme of the film, afflict several segments of Pakistani society," he was quoted earlier.

A Girl in the River, which is a joint production of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC) Films and Home Box Office (HBO), follows the life of an 18-year-old girl who is a rare survivor of an honour killing attempt. Honour killing is a grave issue in Pakistan as more than a 1000 women fall prey to this practice each year, usually at the hands of their own family members.

Their male murderers are often “pardoned” by relatives under the country’s controversial Islamic blood money laws that allow murderers to escape punishment.

The film has been jointly produced by journalist Tina Brown and documentary producer Sheila Nevins and will be aired on HBO this year.



Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy hopes Oscar-nominated film will help end honour killings

Reuters — Updated Feb 08, 2016 05:13pm

KARACHI: Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy hopes her latest Academy Award-nominated documentary will help bring tougher laws against honour killings in Pakistan, which account for the deaths of hundreds of women and men each year.

The film, which follows the story of a young woman who survived attempted murder by her father and uncle after marrying a man without their approval, was nominated for an Oscar in January, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge to take a firm stand against the “evil” practice.

More than 500 men and women died in honour killings in 2015, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Many of these crimes, carried out by relatives who say their mostly female victims have brought shame on the family, are never prosecuted, observers say.

“People need to realise that it is a very serious crime,” Obaid-Chinoy told Reuters in an interview in Karachi.

“It’s not something that is part of our religion or culture. This is something that should be treated as pre-meditated murder and people should go to jail for it.”

Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy works on her computer at her office in Karachi, February 4, 2016.—Reuters

Obaid-Chinoy’s film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”, scheduled to air on HBO in March, tells the story of 19-year-old Saba from Pakistan’s Punjab province.

After marrying a man without the agreement of her family, Saba’s father and uncle beat her, shot her in the face, put her in a bag and threw her in a river, leaving her for dead.

Saba survived, and set out to ensure that her attackers were brought to justice.

Her father and uncle were arrested and went to jail, but Saba was pressured to “forgive” her attackers. That option under Pakistani law can effectively waive a complainant’s right to seek punishment against the accused, even in the case of attempted murder.

Altering the law to remove the possibility of “forgiveness” could help reduce the number of honour killings in Pakistan, advocates of such a change say.

An act that would amend the law across Pakistan was passed by one house of parliament last year, but did not clear the other chamber due to delays, said Sughra Imam, who introduced the bill when she was a lawmaker.

Both she and Obaid-Chinoy hope the attention the film has received abroad and at home, including from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, might help push the amendments through.

“The greatest win of ’A Girl in the River’ would be if the prime minister does take the lead, brings the stakeholders on board and they pass the (act),” Obaid-Chinoy said.

After the film was nominated in the short documentary category, Sharif issued a statement congratulating the filmmaker and pledging his government’s commitment to rid Pakistan of the “evil” of honour killings by “bringing in appropriate legislation.”

Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar in the same category for “Saving Face”, a film about acid attacks in Pakistan.

Sharif invited the director to screen the new film at his residence to an audience of prominent Pakistanis.

Although it is not clear exactly how Sharif proposes to change existing legislation, Obaid-Chinoy said his reaction was a pleasant surprise.

“This could be (Sharif’s) legacy ... that no woman in this country should be killed in the name of honour, and if she is, people should go to jail for it,” she said.

“The world is watching.”