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A still shows Saba, the victim of an attempted honor killing, in the documentary "Girl in the River". (Courtesy of HBO)

Dangerous enemies

Oscar-nominated documentary about “honor killings” exposes filmmaker to witch hunt

By Sanam Maher on February 24, 2016

On a dark night in June 2014, a bruised and bloodied young woman stumbled into a petrol station in Gujranwala, a city in Pakistan’s Punjab province. She had been beaten, shot in the face, dumped in a burlap sack and thrown into a nearby canal. As her attackers fled, the cool water jolted her awake. She struggled out of the sack, and treaded water till she reached the canal’s banks where, grasping at reeds, she pulled herself to dry land. She followed the distant lights of cars and motorbikes until she ended up at the station, begging for help. Eighteen-year-old Saba Qaiser was picked up by rescue services that night and taken to a hospital, where she told doctors her father and uncle tried to kill her for marrying a man they did not approve of.

This was a clear-cut case of ‘honor killing’, a practice that claimed the life of at least one woman in Pakistan every day in 2015 alone — and those are figures gleaned from reported cases only — as she is murdered for bringing ‘dishonor’ to her family.

In her latest documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy met Saba’s father, Maqsood, shortly after he was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of his daughter. Furious that Saba married a man from a lower social class of her own free will, Maqsood claimed, “Whatever we did, we were obliged to do it. She took away our honor.” He describes his daughter’s decision to marry someone her parents did not approve of as “unlawful”.

“I labored and earned lawfully to feed her, this was unlawful of her,” he insisted. “If you put one drop of piss in a gallon of milk, the whole thing gets destroyed. That is what (Saba) has done.”

Unrepentant, Maqsood said: “If I had seen (Saba’s husband), I would have killed him too.”

Saba is seen in a documentary about honor killing by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, "Girl in the River". (Courtesy of HBO)
Saba, 19, is seen in a documentary about honor killing by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, “Girl in the River”. (Courtesy of HBO)

While Saba underwent surgery for lacerations to her face and arm, her mother and sister did not visit her, Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary reveals. “Who can tolerate such betrayal by a daughter?” asked Saba’s sister Aqsa.

When Saba eloped, her family became the target of the neighborhood’s derision, Aqsa claims. “The people who feared us now taunt us.”

Saba’s mother Maqsooda says she did not know about her husband’s plan, but it doesn’t surprise her. “This is what happens when honor is at stake,” she explained. “Saba left no respect for me.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s film reveals the tenuous grip this concept of ‘honor’ has on many men and women in Pakistan and the lengths to which they will go to preserve it.

“Go to hell, I will not forgive you”

Men and women killed for ‘honor’ in Pakistan rarely survive. And if they do, their days are numbered. “If the first attempt to murder the man or woman fails, the job is done in the second attempt,” Saba’s lawyer, Asad Jamal, told Women in the World. In 2004, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act first defined ‘honor’ crimes in the Pakistan Penal Code, stipulating a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for the offender. However, a loophole in the law allows for the accused to be forgiven or pardoned by the victim or her relatives. When Jamal offered to take up Saba’s case pro bono, she had no intention of using this loophole, despite growing pressure from her family and members of the community. “People who visit my father tell me he is asking for forgiveness,” she said in Obaid-Chinoy’s film, ahead of the trial. “When I went to court to set a trial date, my uncle begged me to forgive him. I told him, ‘Go to hell, I will not forgive you.’”

Jamal says he was hopeful that Saba’s case would be a landmark one. All signs, he said, indicated that this case was special. “Usually honor killing cases do not even get reported — the police quash the information as they don’t want it reported in the media, or the magistrate doesn’t want word to get out,” he explained. “The whole system works against women.”

In Saba’s case, however, her survival not only made headlines in English and regional language newspapers but by some “miracle,” Jamal says, “the police were not so bad to her, the hospital’s doctors helped her, and the girl herself was very adamant that she did not want to pardon the people who tried to kill her.”

By July, however, Saba’s father was a free man. “Saba’s husband Qaiser and his brother — the elder of the house — Shafaqat stopped taking my phone calls just days before the court hearing,” Jamal said. “I understood that the case was now at a standstill.”

When Saba arrived in court on the day of the hearing, she found out that Shafaqat and her community’s elders had procured another lawyer for her — someone she had never met or even spoken to — as they wished for her to drop the case. “Saba can just tell the judge, ‘I was angry then, and I want to forgive them’,” the lawyer, Waqas Bhatti, said in Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary. “We all live in the same neighbourhood,” explained Shafaqat, when asked why Saba should pardon her uncle and father. “Some day we may need our neighbours’ help. Would they ever cooperate with us if we did not compromise?”

Saba complied with the wishes of her husband’s family, and the judge ordered the immediate release of the two men who tried to kill her.

“One filmmaker making a film cannot defame a country”

This month, Pakistan marks two years since Senator Syeda Sughra Imam tabled the Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill in the Senate to “address the loopholes and lacunae in the existing laws” dealing with honor crimes. The Bill was finally passed by the Senate in March 2015, but lapsed in parliament in October last year. In January, Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary was nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Documentary — Short Subject’ category and the Bill leaped to the front page of newspapers once more. Obaid-Chinoy started a petition urging the prime minister to ‘bring this Bill back in parliament’, and while the response to the petition has been lukewarm (it has only been signed 1,745 times within Pakistan and internationally), Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken notice of the documentary and the nod from the Academy. On February 15, Sharif met with Obaid-Chinoy and invited her to screen A Girl in the River at Prime Minister House in Islamabad on February 22 — the first screening of the film in the country.

For Obaid-Chinoy, this is a greater win than any award. “I have an Oscar,” she said at the Karachi Literature Festival earlier this month, referring to her win four years ago for Saving Face, a documentary about brutal acid attacks on women. “It’s a beautiful statue, I love it, but I’d really like this law to get passed, because I made a promise to Saba that I will try my utmost best so this law of forgiveness does not exist anymore.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s quest has received a great deal of praise in Pakistan and one newspaper’s editorial summed up this positive national sentiment when it congratulated her for “bringing world attention to an evil practice”. However, as the Academy Awards ceremony draws close and Obaid-Chinoy uses the spotlight on the film to speak out about honor killings, some in Pakistan have dredged up an old, often repeated critique of the filmmaker and her work: Sharmeen only makes movies about the negative things in Pakistan. “I have been working on so many issues,” Obaid-Chinoy told Women in the World, in response to critics, “and with 90 percent of the films, you don’t know how the story will turn out when you start working on it. I did not know that Saba would forgive her father and uncle. These films take more than a year sometimes to make and circumstances change, lives change in that time — the films turn out very different to what you imagined, and with the stories I pick up, I do them because I think that story is the story to work on.”

The criticism first took root with Saving Face, particularly after the Oscar win and one that has gained the greatest traction online, when some women featured in that documentary claimed they never gave permission for the film to be screened in Pakistan. Comment sections and blogs on the sites of leading English and Urdu language newspapers that had initially praised Obaid-Chinoy at the time of her nomination and win swiftly grew to include the voices of those who were unhappy with the film’s subject.

On February 27, 2012, the morning after Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar, The Express Tribune’s lead editorial exclaimed, “You have done us proud, Sharmeen!” Just two days later, however, the mood had apparently soured. “Her documentaries all perform the kabuki dance that brings forth international funding, distribution and publicity,” an Op-Ed in the same newspaper stated. “Frankly, there are two reasons why the film won the Oscar: excellent public relations work, and choice of topic that fits the western narrative of acceptable ways to talk about Muslim women,” argued a blogger who described the documentary as “mediocre.” Rumors swirled: “She did not even bother to return call from another (acid) victim who later committed suicide,” claimed one reader. “She just want to show Pakistan’s ugly face,” said one commenter on a story about some acid attack survivors threatening to sue Obaid-Chinoy.

This year, the critics are back. Ironically, they accuse a filmmaker speaking about the nebulous and potentially life-threatening concepts of ‘honor’ and ‘respect’ of ‘defaming’ and ‘disgracing’ Pakistan. “Yes she will definitely win Oscar as she has worked this time harder to defame & disgrace Pakistan in front of west,” tweeted one critic. Others accused Obaid-Chinoy of being a ‘Western backed pawn’ and compared her to Malala Yousafzai, saying, “Whoever will write/speak against Pakistan they will get Oscar award or Noble [sic] prize.” One user on Twitter agreed with the comparison, tweeting a link to a television show that accused Malala of being “a traitor, a blasphemer of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad”. The show has since been censured by a regulatory authority for airing such life-threatening hate speech.

Obaid-Chinoy describes these critics as “outliers”, saying, “I don’t look at them as anyone in the mainstream.” She adds, “These people want to bring down a woman who wants to highlight women’s issues.” Obaid-Chinoy believes the criticism is fuelled by her success, saying, “Tell me one person in the world who is successful and who doesn’t have this problem.” Additionally, she dismisses the accusations of ‘disgracing’ Pakistan, arguing, “One filmmaker making a film cannot defame a country.” Obaid-Chinoy says she does not feel threatened by such comments, as these critics are “people who sit behind a computer screen and who basically like to crib.”

Facing a social-media witch hunt

However, there are some who believe these anonymous online critics should be taken seriously. Jahanzaib Haque, the former web editor of The Express Tribune, recalls that when the newspaper’s site ran stories in 2013 about issues such as LGBT rights and Valentine’s Day, it was viciously attacked and ultimately accused of ‘insulting the Quran’, with a hashtag trending on Twitter in Pakistan that detailed the paper’s ‘insults’.

“I discovered that it was a group of 10 people — a bunch of bloggers — who had first accused The Express Tribune of insulting the Quran,” Haque says. “We spoke with them and explained that what they were doing was dangerous. They stopped attacking us, but what they had started got out of hand and had spiraled beyond their control online — they didn’t realize what could happen when they tied their criticism to accusations of blasphemy.”

Haque believes this group of people and the social media flurry it created is responsible for the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, the activist and founder of The Second Floor café in Karachi, in April last year. In February 2013, Mahmud’s photograph and snippets from her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts that criticized a public campaign against Valentine’s Day were shared widely on social media platforms by the same people accusing The Express Tribune of blasphemy, he claims. Mahmud was also accused of “insulting” Islam. This accusation surfaced once more in May 2015, when the man accused of murdering Mahmud reportedly confessed that he “shot her for holding a Valentine’s Day rally”.  “To say that these online attacks don’t have consequences  in the real world is naïve,” Haque believes.

Haque explains that the criticism Obaid-Chinoy faces is characteristic of social-media witch hunts in Pakistan. “You can create a perception of events or personalities online to suit your purposes, and you use comment sections on news websites, and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to get people to think a certain way,” he says. “You only need a small number of people to do this.” Haque says the formula is simple: an individual is “noted down” or on someone’s radar “for being a problem”, and once they’re in the crosshairs, a very deliberate campaign featuring messages, blogs, or memes is created to target that individual online. “These critics come up with messages and wait for them to resonate,” Haque explains. “And the messages resonate very easily in Pakistan if you frame someone as ‘anti-Pakistan.’”

Of the 200 million people in Pakistan, only an estimated 13 percent have access to the Internet. However, Haque says that this level of penetration only enables online critics. “Such a small audience is far more gullible and take certain voices as true or consider a majority position they’re seeing as true,” he explains. Lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad has personally experienced how the opinions of such a small group of social media critics can spill over into life offline. “Malala Yousafzai attended some of my training workshops before she was shot by the Taliban,” Dad explains. “When she was attacked, my photographs went viral on Twitter after someone accused me of getting funding from the West. They wrote that I was ‘polluting the minds of young people’ and posted a photograph of Malala and me.”

Dad says she swiftly faced a “mob” attacking her and threatening her online as hundreds of social media users joined the conversation. Even today, as Dad campaigns against a Cybercrime Bill proposed by the government, she says the perception of her as “anti-Pakistan” persists. “Pakistan’s IT minister — a woman — says in meetings that women like me are resisting the Cybercrime Bill because we are anti-Pakistan and receiving money from the West to derail Pakistan.”

In 2014, the first study of hate speech in Pakistani cyberspace was carried out by human rights organisation Bytes for All. “In the online space, discrimination and hate speech related to females reflects … intolerance found in society,” the report found. “Attacks consist of vili­fying and ‘shaming’ females and individuals or groups that support women’s rights and any attempt to change or challenge the status quo.”

The report stated that labels such as ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ were used in critiques of women, as well as suggestions of ‘dishonor’, ‘disobedience’ and ‘vulgarity’ among other derogatory remarks. “A misogynistic mindset that exists offline seems to have migrated to the online sphere in Pakistan,” Dad agrees, manifested in the use of jokes or memes about rape and pornographic or Photoshopped images of the woman in question. For instance, in the last week alone, two memes featuring Obaid-Chinoy have been widely shared circulated by her critics. One features a woman filming another woman performing oral sex on a man. “Still better than Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy,” reads the text of the meme. In the second, the creators use Chinoy’s photograph and refers to Indian adult entertainment star Sunny Leone. “Sunny Leone is better than this Pakistani Oscar auntie,” the text in Urdu says. “Sunny f***s you for sure, but at least she doesn’t say her country is bad.” The memes are often tweeted with a link to a video — a supercut of many of Chinoy’s documentaries -– that lays out Chinoy’s “propaganda.” “Sharmeen is the CIA’s pet b***h,” wrote one Twitter user in response to the video. “She keeps disgracing Pakistan.”

Haque, now the web editor for Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper Dawn, said that while such hate speech on social media platforms is not moderated, most Pakistani news sites are prepared for the torrent of criticism stories about Obaid-Chinoy receive and will often remove abusive comments. “On February 28th, the day of the Oscars, its going to come pouring through,” he predicted. “It will be the same message against Sharmeen, written in three different forms, with readymade shares and memes.” And if Obaid-Chinoy wins the Oscar? “Our comment moderators are ready for it,” Haque confirmed.

You can follow Sanam Maher on Twitter @SanamMKhi


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