Saba wanted to marry the man she fell in love with, an idea that seems simple to many in the West. Yet her family members — steeped in conservative Pakistani culture — couldn’t abide that. After she eloped, her father and uncle took revenge, shooting her and dumping her body in a river. Miraculously, she survived and went on a crusade to prevent other girls from sharing her fate. Even though her father and uncle were arrested and imprisoned for their crimes, Saba was pressured to “forgive” them. In Pakistan, perpetrators are absolved if a victim forgives them.
This attempted honor killing is documented in Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Academy Award winning movie Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. A veteran of the Women in the World Summit, Obaid Chinoy is the consummate storyteller. She hopes to affect real change by amplifying a larger problem — in Pakistan, more than 1,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings annually — through a singular narrative.
“One of the most important ways to tackle an issue is to put a voice and a face on it,” Obaid Chinoy said at the eighth annual summit. “Winning an Academy Award really helps,” she added. “The prime minister of the country watched the film and said ‘there is no honor in honor killing.’”
Obaid Chinoy has done a series of films examining the role of women in Pakistani culture. In one, she told the story of a woman who established a parallel judicial panel in her village when she found that men were not dispensing equal justice. In another, she followed an all-female anti-terrorism unit. They are often deployed on missions that would be difficult for men to complete — if, say, there was a house that needed searching with women inside.
“When men go on raids in that conservative area, they can’t enter a house, the women have to go first,” she said. “In fact, these women lead the anti-terrorism squad and the men follow behind them.”
In all her films — whether documenting acts of perseverance or brutality — Obaid Chinoy tries to emphasize cultural context. In Girl in the River, for example, she does not turn Saba’s father into a villain. People must understand, she argues, that he has lived in a world where ignoring these traditional laws is considered dishonorable. She also does not demonize Islam, noting that honor killings are all too prevalent in Hindu and Sikh communities, as well.
Still, Obaid Chinoy has heard her fair share of criticism. But when going through the arduous process of making a film, she tries to simply block it out. “In the dead of the night, I prefer to listen to the voices that are cheering me on because those are the ones that will help me get to the finish line.”
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.