Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s record second win at the Oscars for her short documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is proof that lightning can actually strike twice. Hardly four years ago, Chinoy was standing at the same stage in Los Angeles, accepting an Oscar for her documentary Saving Face, about Pakistani victims of acid attacks. Chinoy’s current Oscar winner examines a no less painful subject, honour killings in Pakistan.
The story centres around 18-year-old Saba, who fell in love with a man of her own choice; her father shot her in the head and threw her in a river to avenge the family’s ‘honour’. Saba incredibly survived her ordeal and went to court against her family. Today, she stands as a powerful witness against these abhorrent crimes as one of the few to actually escape death at the hands of a family intent on avenging their slighted honour with a blood sacrifice.
The amount of global conversation about the movie and its subject is uncomfortable for many Pakistanis to bear. They don’t like being singled out as the country where women are killed for honour and perpetrators get away because of legal loopholes that permit a victim’s heirs to ‘forgive’ the murderer. Yet if we can manage to bear our discomfort with the same grace and patience that Saba must bear the scars on her face, we might be able to enact a real change in Pakistani law, if not the attitudes behind the criminal act of honour killings.
Chinoy’s Oscar win should lead to action against a despicable practice.
Chinoy has stated in interviews that her real hope for this film is to see it put enough pressure on Pakistan’s government that it will enact an anti-honour killing law that has been languishing in the Senate since 2014. This particular law, according to senator Sherry Rehman, herself an ardent champion of women’s rights, was passed in the National Assembly but is still in committee, meaning that it can’t yet be considered legal in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, women are still being killed for honour every day, in the name of tradition; 1,000 women a year, says Chinoy, are killed in Pakistan in honour crimes.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took notice of the Oscar buzz surrounding Chinoy’s film and hosted a special screening of the movie in late February, the week before the Oscars. Afterwards, he promised to make real efforts to eradicate the loopholes that allow perpetrators to escape unpunished for this crime.
Given the amount of injustices that exist in Pakistan today, would that a film could be made about each one that might be nominated for an Oscar. Then perhaps our government might pay attention to all the problems with the laws that on paper address these issues but in practice are so ineffectively implemented.
Chinoy’s film and its Oscar win may be the push the government needs to enact an all-encompassing law against honour killings. It comes within days of the Punjab government enacting the Punjab Women’s Protection Bill 2015, a landmark ruling that comprehensively penalises particular crimes against women including domestic violence, emotional, economic and psychological abuse, cyber crime, stalking and abetting of offenders.
This law is different from previous iterations in that it also proposes mechanisms to implement the laws, including violence against women centres, toll-free helplines, and restraining orders that can be enforced by fitting perpetrators with GPS tracking devices to ensure they stay away from the women they are terrorising.
For the first time in our society, the government has spelled out the various ways in which women are not just physically but also emotionally and mentally abused. And it has placed itself firmly on the side of the victim rather than the aggressor, a sea change in our heavily patriarchal society.
Don’t expect societal attitudes towards gender-based violence to change overnight. As soon as the women’s protection bill was passed, the religious right-wing was out making statements in the newspapers and appearing on television to protest the destruction of the family and the weakening of men’s standing in society. But for the first time, their protests rang hollow.
With more Pakistanis growing aware of women’s right to live in peace and safety, what is seen as religiously sanctioned male supremacy can no longer act as a cloak under which all these crimes remain hidden forever, in complete opposition to Islam’s true stance of protecting women from them.
No doubt there will be people who dismiss Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy as a ‘traitor’ or an ‘agent’ bent on disgracing Pakistan with her important films. To them, she has besmirched their honour by bringing worldwide attention to a major injustice in our society. But if it helps to do away with the rot in our system that allows women and girls to die in the name of ‘honour’, the Oscar spotlight would be welcome in our darkest corners.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2016