The first Oscar-winner in Pakistan's history is back in the Hollywood limelight this weekend as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's unflinching new documentary about 'honor killings,' A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness, competes for an Academy Award.
The 37-year-old Chinoy's previous film about acid-attack victims, Saving Face, won the top prize for a documentary short in 2012.
Chinoy spoke via e-mail with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal correspondent Bashir Ahmad Gwakh about her shortlisted film, which revolves around Saba Qaisar, a 19-year-old girl from Pubjan Province whose father shot her in the head after she married without the family's permission. She also talked about the tribal pressure that eventually forced Qaisar to withdraw charges, the 1,000 or so honor killings a year that plague Pakistani society, and the Oscars.
RFE/RL: Tell us about the case of Saba Qaisar. How did you find her, and where does the case stand?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: I read about Saba's story in the newspapers shortly after the incident took place, and I knew I had to share her story with the world -- her only "fault" was falling in love. I then contacted the head of the hospital where she was being treated and went to visit her. At the time, I wasn't sure what would happen with her case, but ultimately she ended up forgiving her father after being pressurized by the village elders.
RFE/RL: What does your documentary find? Tell us about the status of women going through domestic violence and families whose loved one was killed in 'honor killings.'
Chinoy: The film really brings to reality the kind of patriarchal and conservative mindset that women are up against. I went to speak to Saba's father after he was arrested, and he had so much hatred in him. He was still adamant that Saba was in the wrong, and he felt justified trying to kill his own daughter. He felt it was his duty as a father and husband to protect his family from the "dishonor" that Saba brought upon them by falling in love and getting married. The interaction that I had with him spoke volumes about the kinds of choices we women have in the world and how our lives are impacted by the decisions taken by others.
The very fact that women are currently unable to make their own policy decisions in certain parts of the country is an alarming reality, and pushes us further away from being the owners of our own stories and fighters for our own rights.
Ever year, hundreds of women are killed in the name of honor, and although honor killings are prevalent in Pakistan, they are considered a taboo subject by many. There is a perception that somehow these murders fall under the purview of the family and that they shouldn't be questioned or challenged. To me, they have always been premeditated, cold-blooded murders justified under the guise of culture or religion.
I wanted to tell the story of a victim of honor killing because I wanted to start a national discourse about this issue and build momentum to garner support for key legislation that better protects women from such violence.
RFE/RL: Do you think Pakistan needs to strengthen laws to prevent honor killings? What are your recommendations for lawmakers and the government?
Chinoy: The law, as it stands, sees honor killing as an offense against the individual and not the state, and hence the victim can choose to "forgive" the perpetrator. If the victim is killed, which is often what happens in such cases, the family of the victim has the right to forgive the perpetrator. So when a father kills his daughter, his wife can forgive him, and when a brother kills his sister, his parents can forgive him. This is how the current law is being misused.
After the screening of A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness at the [Pakistani prime minister's] house, the prime minister [Nawaz Sharif] asked his team to redraft laws on honor killings to help ensure that perpetrators are punished and victims are protected.
RFE/RL: Why do we see an increase in honor killings? How can it be prevented?
Chinoy: The prevalence of such attacks stems partly from structural inequalities that make it difficult for women to access the judicial system in addition to longstanding cultural practices that support gender discrimination. The perpetrators know that they will only serve a few years in jail if they are found guilty. The lack of liability coupled with an embedded patriarchal system allows for honor-killing crimes to run rampant -- and this is exactly what we need to tackle in order to get justice for the victims of honor killing and prevent it from occurring again.
RFE/RL: How do you feel about your documentary being nominated for an Academy Award? What's your next project?
Chinoy: I am proud to be representing Pakistan on such a prestigious platform -- that [it is also] for the second time. I am grateful that the SOC Films production was able to share the untold story of A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness with a global audience. Since the start of my career, I have always endeavored to share the stories of those who cannot do so themselves. To be acknowledged for this work is always very humbling, and on such a giant platform like the Oscars makes it surreal.
But for me personally, it will be an even bigger win if we, as a nation, take this opportunity to acknowledge that we have a problem and pass the Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014. It is time we change the law and stand up for the victims of this heinous crime.
(Editor's note: The bill was passed by the provincial legislature on February 25.)
Currently, we are working on a sequel to 3 Bahadur, which was an animated feature film that we released in the summer of 2015. In order to continue its legacy and further inspire the children of Pakistan, we are hoping to release 3 Bahadur Part 2 in cinemas nationwide in December 2016!
RFE/RL: How was your meeting with Prime Minister Sharif? What did you discuss and what was his response on honor killing?
Chinoy: The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has vowed since the Oscar nomination to eradicate honor killings. As a father and a grandfather, it is important for him to make that gesture, not only to the women of Pakistan but also to the women of his own family.
The support that we have received from the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, will help change the mindset of society. If we can begin to amend the law and address loopholes in the current legislation, then we can slowly begin to protect the women of Pakistan and send out a strong message that this practice is nothing but a stain on our society.