Sharmeen’s remarkable feat


WEB DESK: About 1,000 women are killed every year in Pakistan in the name of ‘honour killing’. Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is out to help stop this abhorrent crime, and we earnestly hope and pray that she succeeds – like she did by winning her second Oscar for her short documentary on this subject, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”. After watching the film at his official residence last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, promised to ‘change the law’. And this time that may happen, given the positivity that tends to prevail in the country in the wake of the passage of “the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill 2015”.

Earlier, Senator Sughra Imam’s bill aimed at making honour killing a non-compoundable offence was allowed to lapse in the parliament though the Senate had passed it. Honour killing being presently a compoundable offence, the offenders escape punishment, for under social pressures and for the sake of family honour, a victim more often than not forgives the perpetrator. This being a crime against an individual, and not against society, it is treated as compoundable, if victim accepts the gesture of forgiveness rendered by the offender. This is Sharmeen’s second documentary that shines light on the plight of women in Pakistan; her first “Saving Face” focused on the unremitting crime of disfiguring women by throwing acid on their faces. Strangely ironic it is, that just about the time she was being honoured with her second Academy Award, the newspapers in Pakistan were printing the story of yet another young woman disfigured by acid.

“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” is the story of 19-year-old Saba Qamar who was shot in head, her body stuffed in a bag and thrown into the river. Her crime, they said, was that she shamed her family by marrying a man of her choice. Right at the time she was being shot she shook a little and the bullet only grazed her cheek. The offenders – her own father and an uncle – took her for dead and threw her in the river. Still being alive she clung to some bushes and after ensuring she could come out undetected she climbed out of water and reached a police station and then the court of law.

The film follows her in her journey for justice. Saba seeks conviction of her father and uncle. But eventually she relents under social and family pressures and accepts ‘forgiveness’ tendered by the perpetrators. The offence being compoundable they go scot-free while Saba accepts to live a ‘tainted’ life in return for winning her father and uncle the society’s award of ‘men of honour’.

Some 5,000 women are killed for honour the world over every year but mostly in Muslim countries, with Pakistan heading the list. In fact, our society is beset with many other such ‘distinctions’ too. Thousands of cases of honour killing, rape, disfiguring by acid, vani, karo-kari and forced marriages are pending in courts. Women are also politically being shortchanged, especially by denying them their right to equal space in the affairs of the state.

In some parts of the country, the men-dominated political parties decide among themselves that their women will not cast their votes. Laws do exist to help vindicate women rights but either these laws are too vague being old and outdated or offences punishable under them are compoundable, which makes their execution problematic. How to make these laws relevant to their present needs is an issue – and a political dilemma. One only has to see how furiously the religious parties are protesting the legislation of the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, and also have no shame in sharing power with the parties who supported the said bill in the Punjab Assembly. That is one more subject that Sharmeen may consider for her next documentary.