Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has long wanted to make a movie about the thousands of women who have been, and continue to be, murdered in her country by husbands, fathers, brothers and other male relatives who believe the women have shamed their families. But she wanted to tell the story of these so-called honor killings through the eyes of a survivor, a plan that proved daunting until she met Saba Qaiser, the subject of her Oscar-nominated documentary short, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”
Qaiser, now 19, had eloped and married a man against her family’s wishes. Shortly after the wedding, Qaiser’s father and uncle found her, took her to a riverbank, shot her in the head, stuffed her in a bag and threw her into the water. Qaiser survived, grabbing on to the reeds near the river’s edge, and found help, eventually recovering. But her story was far from finished.
Once police apprehended the father and uncle, Qaiser was pressured to set them free per Pakistan’s “forgiveness law,” a legal loophole that allows families to forgive the killers.
“You would be hard-pressed to pick up a newspaper in Pakistan every day and not find a story of an honor killing,” Obaid-Chinoy said. Government statistics put the annual number at 1,000. Most believe the figure to be double that because knowledge of the killings is kept within the family, the victims often buried in unmarked graves.
The Oscar nomination for Obaid-Chinoy’s film has again galvanized debate about honor killings, putting pressure on the Pakistani government to close the legal technicalities that allow the killings to continue unpunished. The movie had a premiere screening Monday in Islamabad at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s home with Sharif and members of Pakistan’s senate and national assembly attending.
A week earlier, Obaid-Chinoy had met with Sharif to discuss her film. After their talk, Sharif issued a statement saying that honor killings have nothing to do with Islam, calling the issue “critical” and promising to “adopt all possible ways and means for removing this stain from our society.”
“That’s a huge deal,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “The prime minister has never made a statement like that so publicly about anything related to women. And it seemed like it came from the heart.”
The conversation spurred by “A Girl in the River” follows the high-profile public outcry over the 2014 killing of Farzana Parveen, a pregnant woman who was stoned to death by nearly 20 members of her family outside a Pakistani high court.
“In Pakistan, cultural tradition, government and religious law have all been in cahoots around honor violence, and ‘A Girl in the River’ is pulling the rug out from under that alliance,” said author and activist Amy Logan, who has worked on the issue of honor killings for 20 years.
Obaid-Chinoy remains hopeful that Sharif follows through and sponsors legislation that eliminates the “forgiveness law.”
“If people go to jail, the precedent will be set that if you kill a woman in your family, you will go to jail,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “Deterrence is the very first step.”