It goes without saying that visual storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to learn about a topic and to begin a conversation that may have previously been too uncomfortable – or too controversial – to discuss. A film can be the icebreaker that creates valuable social, cultural and political change. This has recently happened in the case of honour killings in Pakistan, through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Academy Award winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. This isn’t the first controversial topic that Obaid-Chinoy has taken on, with her previous documentary Saving Face also winning an Academy Award in 2012. Obaid-Chinoy has also been named as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world.
About the film
Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary follows the story of Saba Qaiser, a young girl who was shot by her father and uncle and then tossed into a river as punishment for running away to marry a man. Miraculously, she survived, which is what makes her story so unique. Her uncle and father were put in jail, however after pressure from her family, in-laws and the community, she forgave her father and he was legally pardoned. Once released from jail, her father boasts that his position within the community had actually been improved following the attack, bragging that his daughters will never disobey him in the future. Obaid-Chinoy hopes that her documentary can be the catalyst for change and stated the following after being nominated for this year’s Academy Awards:
“Honour killings affect hundreds of women in Pakistan every year and I hope that the film and its message will catalyze awareness and action around this crisis, igniting change for women and help put an end to this tragic abuse of human rights. This is an opportunity for Pakistan to acknowledge that it has a problem and to address it with urgency because there is no honor in an honor killing. We will send out a strong message that this heinous crime is not a part of our culture or religion, and by passing this legislation we will stand up for those victims who are no longer with us today.”
What is an honour killing?
An honour killing is premeditated murder (or attempted murder) that is performed in order to restore the reputation and honour of a family. It usually involves killing a young woman after she has brought dishonour to her family in matters of love and marriage. This dishonour can be brought on by a range of different acts including, but not limited to, alleged marital infidelity, refusal to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, perceived flirtatious behaviour and being raped.
Honour killings are a global issue
This isn’t a small issue that is only happening in one place. According to the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, the rates of honour killings performed globally are around 5,000 each year, however this figure is considered an underestimate, as many victims do not survive and their families do not come forward to authorities.
India and Pakistan have some of the highest recorded rates – with around 1,000 women killed each year in both countries. High rates are also evident in North Africa and Iran as well as in democratic countries such as North American and Canada. On average there are 12 honour killings in the UK annually.
"Honour killings affect hundreds of women in Pakistan every year and I hope that the film and its message will catalyze awareness and action around this crisis, igniting change for women and help put an end to this tragic abuse of human rights."
A short history of honour killings in Pakistan
Prior to 2004, honour killings in Pakistan were treated as an act of passion. I repeat, in 2004 (a mere 12 years ago), a father could openly kill their daughter for refusing an arranged marriage and would not suffer any consequences. There has been some progress in the last decade with honour killings now regarded as murder, or attempted murder. However, there is a loophole. If the victim, or their family choose to forgive the perpetrator, then there is no punishment. This is called the forgiveness loophole and is the same loophole that allowed Qaiser’s father to avoid punishment. It seems absurd that you could forgive someone after they shot you in the head with the full intention to kill you. However, when your family, friends and community are all pressuring you, there is little other option but to forgive in order to move forward in your life.
The film's impact
This film will be released in partnership with HBO later this year, but the effects of this powerful story have already had political ramifications in Pakistan, with the Prime Minister stating after seeing the film: “There is no place for killing in the name of honor in Islam” and that his government “is in the process of legislating to stop such brutal and inhumane acts in the name of honor.”
Hopefully from the documentary’s release, more countries will follow Pakistan’s example of positive and progressive change towards a better future. This impact could not have bee achieved without Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary as a spark.
Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary will be released on HBO later this year.
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