Izzat vs. Insaaniyat: “What Will People Say”

Last night I watched “What Will People Say” (Hva Vil Folk Si) on Netflix, Norway’s official Oscar contender this year. This film is a powerful drama about a Pakistani family in Norway and their young daughter’s struggle with her parents’ values. It is based on filmmaker Iram Haq’s own story of being similarly caught between Pakistani parents and Norwegian culture.

In the movie, sixteen year old Nisha, played movingly by Maria Mozhdah, wants to be like her friends, typical Norwegian teenagers. But her strict Pakistani family demand obedience to the values they brought from home, and Nisha plays a double life in order to please both them and herself. Things go wrong when she makes a fatal mistake and is caught by her father and taken away forcefully to live with extended family in a virtual prison-like situation in Pakistan. The movie concludes with two fateful decisions by both Nisha and her father, and no easy resolutions.

(Spoiler alert – stop reading now!)

A very hard scene to watch is when Nisha is speaking to two Child Services officers. She assures them that everything is fine, her trip to Pakistan was voluntary, and the desperate Facebook message she sent her friend about being kidnapped and beaten was an exaggeration. You know Nisha is lying, and the women probably know it too, but nobody can do anything, even though Nisha has been threatened by her family if she says anything is wrong. These are frustrating situations for those who work to protect children from such circumstances, and I found myself wishing that Child Services had Pakistani-Norwegians working with them to help in such cases,

Too many girls growing up in Western countries, wanting to assimilate and being made to feel like they’re committing a crime in doing so have borne the brunt of their family’s wrath. Many end up exiled to their parents’ home countries, forced into arranged marriages, or even dead. So “What Will People Say” portrays a very sad reality; “Binnaz: A Love Story” is another story about a Kurdish girl in London honor-killed by her family for many of the same reasons that Nisha is put through her ordeal.

In case you think this is being exaggerated, let me assure you that it isn’t. In the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports the British High Commission has signs advertising for a helpline British girls can call if they’ve been forced into coming to Pakistan against their will, and there’s a Forced Marriages Unit that helps British girls that find themselves imprisoned in this way. They are, needless to say, very active here in Pakistan.

It was difficult to watch the young Nisha go through her struggles with not a word of sympathy or understanding from her family, or even her elder brother. I found myself hating her parents, especially her mother, as they chastise her and punish her rather than treating her with compassion or trying to communicate with her. The mother kept screaming on and on about how “izzat” (honor) was the most important thing in the world to them, and how Nisha’s actions, misguided as they were, had destroyed the family. This film  made me wish that we would in fact replace “izzat” with “insaaniyat” (humanity) as our core value in Pakistan instead; maybe less of our daughters would die if we did.