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