When we first started ThandieKay, we were very aware of using the concept of beauty to explore a far wider canvas than our faces. That is why one of our very first posts on this platform was on Pakistani filmmaker, activist, and double Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Amidst our front page with lovely interviews and ‘tips on beauty’, was a post on Sharmeen’s powerful documentary ‘Saving Face’ which focused on the horrendous acid attacks on women in Pakistan for which Sharmeen earned her first Academy Award. It spoke to many themes that we are passionate about; education for women, a supportive community free of ‘shame’, aid for the marginalised voices and the acknowledgment of the damage that toxic masculinity can manifest. A severely scarred face wrecks a woman’s identity in more ways than one: by seeking to ‘destroy’ a young woman’s beauty, you seek to destroy her very soul while either killing her in the process, or rendering her obsolete while still alive. And for what?
Sadly, grotesque acts of violence against women, for simply asserting themselves, are a very real, ever-present threat in many parts of the world.
A few years on Sharmeen has added another Academy award for her documentary ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness‘ to her already long list of accolades and recognitions- which now include six Emmy wins, two Academy awards, a SAARC film award and a Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s second highest civil honour. A Girl in the River follows the story of Saba Qaiser, a young Pakistani woman, who survived after being attacked, shot in the head and left in a river to die by her father and uncle- an ‘act of honour killing’. Public pressure eventually persuaded Saba to forgive her attackers, allowing them, by law, to escape prosecution for the attack. The film’s Oscar nomination brought public attention to the human rights issue of honour killings in Pakistan and the injustice of the ‘forgiveness’ law. Honour killings are a fearful tradition and the laws like this that permit it remove the sense of its criminality and actually embolden the perpetrators within their communities. Saba’s story is unique- the victims do not usually survive- we do not usually get to hear their story. Even in the documentary, Saba’s father believes that his actions will serve as a warning to his other daughters. With the film, Sharmeen asserts that ‘it has nothing to do with honour; it’s premeditated, cold-blooded murder’, as she told The Guardian in February this year.
While filming in the mountains of Pakistan, Sharmeen was so gracious as to take the time to answer Thandie’s questions on the film, its role in bringing about social reform and the future of women’s rights in Pakistan:
Women in Pakistan have a new perspective on their rights thanks to the media and the penetration of the cell phone across the country. Yet, these women are faced with a number of existential threats, and violence against them is continuing to rise. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this is that more and more women are speaking out and asking for their rights.
Pakistan has countless laws that protect the rights of women, and as a step towards further educating and protecting them, I am currently working on a series of short informative videos. This series will give Pakistani women knowledge of their rights accorded to them by the current constitution – whether it has to do with rape, sexual harassment, divorce, inheritance, etc. I hope that, through these videos, women are able to acquire accurate information and clarity about the law – and what options they have should they find themselves in a vulnerable or compromising situation.
Equipping a woman with even the most basic of education, in even the most rural of locations, can change her life. Education can empower women to become self-entrepreneurs, and with the advent of Facebook and social media, women are now able to start their own businesses and sell their products online both nationally and internationally. With such start-ups, women are now bringing in more and more income into the household, making them not only financially independent but also important contributors within their family. By becoming earning members, women are given a stronger voice in the household.
Education is key to ensuring that women have the resources and access to be their own role models and their own support systems. They say that when you educate a girl, you educate the whole family – nothing is truer than this.
There have been advocates who have been working on the issue of honour killing in Pakistan for years, and I feel the film has helped bring new attention to the issue. Last year, Senator Sughra Imam introduced the Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014, which aims to make the crime non-compoundable so that a convicted person cannot escape culpability by being ‘forgiven’ by the victim. The bill passed through Senate in March 2015 but lapsed in Parliament later that year.
The issue of honor killings was again brought to the forefront after ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, with the world watching, the film elevated the issue of honor killings to the national sphere. I was then invited by the Pakistani Prime Minister to screen the film at the PM House, where he pledged to end this heinous crime. The Anti-Honor Killing Bill was passed in Parliament in October this year.
I believe the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan, but our problem is with implementation. I think there has been an awakening in the justice system as well as the public with regards to women’s rights. The legal
developments are a positive sign and the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan. Our problem is with implementation. The prevalence of such attacks stems partly from structural inequalities that make it difficult for women to access the judicial system. Furthermore, our police force is not fully equipped or trained to deal with issues such as honor killings – and there is a mindset that still believes such issues are ‘family matters’.
I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as ‘more important and more pressing’ matters. Conversations in most countries, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament,
are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a generation that is currently witnessing a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance. The very fact that women are currently unable to make their own policy decisions in many countries is an alarming reality and pushes us further away from being the owners of our own stories and fighters for our own rights.
It baffles me that we live in 2016 and women still don’t enjoy the same social, political and economic rights that men to around the world have. Whether is it in U.S. where women are battling to gain control over their own body through planned parenthood and abortions, or the Philippines where women don’t have the right to divorce, or Iraq and Syria where women are being kept as slaves in times of war. Whether it’s in the home or the court, a woman’s voice doesn’t seem to have the same strength and reach as a man’s voice.
I believe that Pakistan is moving towards a more progressive attitude about women’s rights. We are slowly coming together as a society to reject acts of inequality and gender-based violence. It was refreshing to observe that even though such a great tragedy had befallen women like Saba and Qandeel Baloch at the hands of the men in their communities, there were those who rallied to their side, including police officers, lawyers and in Qandeel’s case, her father.
Pakistan recently passed the Anti-Honor Killings Bill and the Women’s Protection Act. This is a monumental step in sending out a strong message that the Pakistani government will not stand for the mistreatment of its women – it is high time that women’s rights are prioritized and protected.
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