Standing on the Oscars stage, there was one message I felt needed to be told: film can change the world. Film can enrage. It can make you laugh and bring you to tears. And most importantly, it can inspire people to take action. Which, at the end of the day, is the ultimate hope for my films. While I have spent much of my career focusing on some of the most painful topics that my home country of Pakistan faces today, including acid attacks and waves of Taliban attacks on schools and children, the aim is not to disempower or discourage but to spark change.
My most recent film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, deals with the brutal and taboo issue of honor killings. It is an all-too-common occurrence in Pakistan where hundreds of women each year are killed by their own fathers, brothers, and uncles for having “dishonored” their families, usually on a mere suspicion or on a false accusation on the most trivial of matters. Almost everyday, you read about a woman who has been killed for ‘falling in love’ or ‘running away from home’ or ‘seeking a divorce,’ and in most cases the only thing to blame is a man’s insecurity.
A Girl in the River documents the story of Saba, an 18-year-old girl who was shot in the face by her father and uncle, thrown in the river and left to die — simply for wanting to marry for love. In response to viewing this film, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to put an end to honor killings. But policy change isn’t so simple. Last year, the bill to outlaw honor killings failed in Parliament due to a lack of mainstream support.
The law, as it stands, considers honor killing an offense against the individual and hence the victim can choose to “forgive” the perpetrator. If the victim is killed, which is often what happens in such cases, the family of the victim has the right to forgive the perpetrator. This is how the current law is being misused and this is what needs to be addressed.
One law on honor killings in Pakistan is not the only legislation that needs to be changed to reach equality for men and women across the globe.
Ninety percent of all countries have at least one legal difference between women and men that limit women’s opportunities. In a number of countries, girls are restricted from attending school, forced into child marriages, and are not protected from violence or rape. Similarly, in some countries women cannot open bank accounts, apply for passports or identification documents, travel outside the home, own property, or work without their husbands’ permission.
Globally, the result is fewer girls going to school, which means fewer women pursuing skilled work and overcoming their subordinated place in society. It also means the continuation of women being disproportionately affected by poverty and a further reduced ability to pull themselves out of this cycle of hardship.
These discriminatory laws are the most explicit, institutionalized, and government-sanctioned forms of inequality, and are often difficult to repeal or reform, as they may be tied to long-held cultural beliefs and face long legislative processes. This is why the voices of global citizens are so valuable and necessary. Pressure from the international community and support to on-the-ground networks who are courageously fighting for change is essential to overcome immense cultural stigma and political inertia.
This month, proposed amendments to Pakistan’s Penal Code, that would criminally penalize perpetrators of honor crimes, will be re-submitted to Parliament by the Prime Minister. The time to act is NOW.
This opportunity to empower Pakistani women coincides with global celebrations of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. We should honor the historic and current contributions of women around the world by changing the status quo and working together to create a world where girls and women are not held back by their countries’ sexist laws.
Citizens around the world must lobby for the repeal or reform of all laws that discriminate against women. This is how we can ensure the law in Pakistan and around the world protects and prioritizes its women.
While not a panacea for egalitarianism, equality in the eyes of the law is a basic human right. Without addressing this injustice, women will remain socially and economically subordinated to men with no legal recourse.
We should take this time to learn, to educate and to advocate for the fundamental rights of all — no matter their gender.
Let’s join together and make our voices heard on behalf of girls and women everywhere.