Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Badge of honour incisive documentary helps reignite the debate on honour killings in Pakistan.

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won the second Oscar for a short documentary that brings international attention to an endemic evil in Pakistan (and India for that matter) known as honour killings. Officially, there are a thousand victims of honour killings every year but the actual number may be much higher. Aside from Sharmeen’s recognition by Hollywood, which by itself is a big win, the Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a victory for Pakistan’s long list of activists who have been advocating to end this heinous practice. Days before the Oscars ceremony, a special screening of the movie was held at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house. The Pakistan PM issued a statement saying he would bring changes to the legislation to end the curse of honour killings. Sharif’s recent overtures to causes such as minority rights and talking about a liberal Pakistan have come as a surprise, given his conservative politics, and his party’s attempts to prevent progressive legislation during the 1990s. Or it is a sign of Pakistan’s drift into extremism that even centrist politicians like Sharif are worried about the future of the country.


A Girl in the River narrates the heart-wrenching story of Saba Qaiser who survived an attempt to kill her and lived to tell her tale. Saba was lucky to survive. Most victims are not. The issue of honour killings is cultural as a woman’s conduct is seen as an instrument of honour of the family. That such tribal and feudal customs continue in the 21st century is a shame indeed. As if the customs were not enough, General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors worked on a law that compounds murder and also enables the murderer to seek forgiveness under an interpretation of Islamic law. In short, honour killings rarely, or never, get punished.

Worse, the parliamentarians, who in any democratic society are required to enact legislation that ends brutal customs, have been divided and complicit. In 1999, a young woman, Samia Sarwar, was killed outside the offices of Pakistan’s renowned human rights lawyers, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani. A resolution moved by a liberal senator in Parliament could not be carried through as a Pakhtun member of the Awami National Party objected to the attempt to interfere with the ‘honour’ culture. In the Musharraf era, a weak law was enacted but when a woman member of parliament presented a resolution, it was shot down. Sherry Rehman’s earlier efforts to table a reform bill were also rejected by the then ruling party closely allied to Gen Musharraf. The Islamists who were in the opposition supported the government on that front.

No substantial headway was made during the recent tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party (2008-2013) either. In fact, media reports highlighted how some parliamentarians from the PPP were allegedly covering up such crimes in their tribes. Such are the contradictions of politics, that in the same party, a proactive Nafisa Shah (who is a member of the national assembly) has been working to end Karo Kari. The latter refers to a custom of killing (mostly) women accused of sexual relations outside marriage. Even a rumour can result in a family member killing a sister or brother. The so-called “love marriages” are also covered under Karo Kari.

In 2014, Sughra Imam, former senator from the PPP, introduced an Anti-Honour Killings Bill, which provided for protection of victims by rendering honour killing a non-compoundable offence. The bill lapsed last year and could not become law.

Women leaders and activists such as Sherry Rehman, Nafisa Shah and filmmakers like Sharmeen are fighting great odds. But they are not giving up. This is why A Girl in the River is an important narrative of today’s Pakistan. It relates the story of a survivor and presents her formidable spirit to live. The film also tells the world that filmmakers such as Sharmeen are taking up issues that otherwise don’t make it as mainstream cultural products. Sharmeen’s earlier film, Saving Face, too bagged an Oscar, and dealt with another critical issue: acid attacks on women in Pakistan.

However, not all Pakistanis are excited about Sharmeen’s international acclaim. One view is that making documentaries on the social evils of Pakistan brings disrepute to the country. And the fact that stereotypes about Pakistan and the oppression of its women sell in the West. This school of thought thinks that Sharmeen should present a more positive image of Pakistan. The Internet meme that has been doing the rounds says something to this effect: “Let’s see if Sharmeen can make a film on drones and if it wins an Oscar.”

In fact, politician Shireen Mazari who happens to be a senior office-bearer of Imran Khan’s party tweeted this after the Oscar was announced: “amazing achievement indeed-2 Oscars! Perhaps a third can come by showing the positive that is also Pakistan! Just an idea.” In her later tweets, she extended unconditional felicitation, but the initial reaction was in line with what many-especially the youth-on social media were saying. Such reactions to the documentary are not too different from the responses to Saving Face. It too was viewed as a film that would reconfirm the stereotype. There was even a controversy over permission to screen the film within Pakistan or not.

But that will always be the issue. Should filmmakers stop making films, and pitching it for international awards just because such narratives represent something problematic within Pakistani society? Some of these reactions remind one of the hullabaloo over the BBC documentary India’s Daughter and its eventual ban in India. This is a dangerous kind of nationalism that muzzles free expression and honest debate.

The other kind of reaction to Sharmeen’s work has to do with her appropriation of the women’s struggle. A leading figure of the Pakistan’s women’s movement, Nighat Saeed Khan, left this comment on my Facebook page: Sharmeen “thanked a lot of male supporters in her speech… but no mention of the women in Jacobabad or Khairpur or…even the relentless struggle for decades by the women of Pakistan across all classes and backgrounds. Good that Nawaz Sharif has suddenly discovered honour killing, but unless he has the guts to get rid of the qisas and diyat law all will be in vain…”

I tend to agree with Khan, that the central issue here is the existence of an unjust law that was made by men, ostensibly to introduce Sharia that after Allah was approved by a warped military general. It needs to be done away with as it continues to obfuscate justice.

The chairman deferred a resolution in Pakistan’s Senate honouring Sharmeen yesterday and urged that it also acknowledge “other women (rights) activists who are struggling on the roads and even practically face baton charge (at times)”.

Sharmeen has helped bring the issue back into national discourse. The power of global opinion helps as it propels our government into action. Pakistan’s moment of celebration is also significant. Amid the controversies surrounding the racism in Hollywood, Sharmeen was the only woman of colour to bag an Oscar. Like Malala, she will continue to be questioned and criticised, but that cannot take away her accomplishments.