A Girl in the River

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the first Pakistani public screening of the Oscar winning film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”. I also conducted a Q & A afterwards with the film’s director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who’s been dealing with a lot of controversy in Pakistan for the film’s subject matter and its global success.

The movie’s about a young woman who survived an honor killing and lived to take her would-be killers – her own father and uncle – to court. Did Sharmeen make this film for Western consumption, as a “transaction” as feminist writer Rafia Zakaria puts it, or to gain Western fame and fortune? Or did she do it to hold up a mirror to Pakistani society and to get a difficult conversation going about a societal sickness that kills at least one thousand Pakistani women a year?

https://player.vimeo.com/video/153547504

TRAILER – A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness from Sharmeen Obaid Films on Vimeo.

Only watching the film can truly answer these questions. And within the first five minutes of its start, you’ll know exactly why Sharmeen made this movie, which is surprisingly lacking in judgment, in preaching, or in overarching pledges to end this horrific form of gender-based violence. Instead, the film unfolds, frame by frame, to tell a searing story of love, murder, survival and redemption: the stuff that many lives are made of, no matter where they’re lived.

It’s Shakespearean in its perspective, starkly told, yet filled with many unexpected moments of beauty. We first meet 19 year old Saba as she’s on an operating table, being treated for the gunshot wounds to her face that were inflicted on her by her father and uncle. We learn that she earned this punishment for leaving her father’s house to marry a man she’d already been engaged to for four years, who her father had approved of initially. He bowed to the pressure of his own brother, who announced that Saba should instead marry his brother in law, and forbade Saba from meeting her fiance, Qaisar.

Saba did not listen. She was firmly attached to Qaisar, and wanted to be with him – as is her right according to the laws of Islam and of human rights. But tribalism and “honor” reign supreme in this backwards part of Gujranwala, where poverty doesn’t stop a neighborhood from being run by its “influentials”. Saba defied them all to marry Qaiser in a court of law. When her family found out what she’d done, they swore they wouldn’t harm her if she returned home so that she could be then sent to her in-laws’ house in a respectable manner.

In the dark of night, her father and uncle took her from her in-laws’ house, to a nearby river. They held her by the neck and put a gun to her head. Saba turned her head at the last minute, which saved her life, but she was still grievously wounded when her uncle pulled the trigger. Then they put her into a bag and threw her in the river.

Saba’s survival from this ordeal is incredible enough. But the journey that follows, to the courts, where Saba wants to see her father and uncle jailed for the crime, is even more incredible. Because in Pakistan, if a man murders a woman for “honor”, the victim’s heirs can “forgive” him and he will be set free. Saba is one of the rarest cases: a woman who survives an attempted honor-killing. Her heirs cannot set her father and uncle free; only she can make the decision.

As family members pressure her and her husband’s family to set her relatives free, we get to know Saba: a vivacious 19 year old who is filled with courage and determination, and an unshakeable belief in justice. Her young husband, Qaiser, is full of tenderness and love for his wife, which provides a necessary counterpoint to the ugliness and hatred of Saba’s father and uncle. These men insist they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, they have acted “honorably” to save their family’s pride. They insist, even from behind bars, that they would do it again, that they would serve their lives in jail for having shown the community that they are men of honor.

The end of the film is a betrayal of Saba and everything that she is fighting for. But even in the midst of this betrayal, there are seeds of hope: Saba is pregnant with her first child, who she wishes to be a girl so that she can “be brave, and stand up for herself.” It makes one think of Malala Yousufzai, who also survived being shot in the head by men who wanted to control her, and brings up the question: why must Pakistani girls be so brave in the face of so much hatred?

I put this question to Sharmeen in the Q & A session afterwards. Was she expecting the controversy? “Yes,” said Sharmeen emphatically. “In a society where there is so much misogyny, I was expecting it. You should see some of the comments that are being left on social media about me. But I wanted everyone to be uncomfortable when watching this film. You should be uncomfortable by what I’ve presented here.”

Sharmeen hopes that the Prime Minister will make good on his word to change the law on honor killings as a result of seeing this film. He promised to do so when the film was shown at the Prime Minister’s House. (Personally, I have my doubts that this will happen: Gujranwala is his personal district, from where he is always elected. The PML-N is totally supported by the religious clergy in the area, campaigning in the last election from Jamaat-e-Islami trucks. The religious right are not on the side of women. Even the Women’s Protection Bill in Punjab that was recently enacted does not allow for any man to be arrested or an FIR filed against him. Violence against women, unlike in Sindh and Balochistan, isn’t criminalized in Punjab, a move that was made to appease the religious right there.)

The fact of the matter is that unless honor killings carry a severe punishment, in the form of significant jail time that cannot be “forgiven” more and more people will do this. Sharmeen says this is exactly the reason why honor killings are increasing in Pakistan. Word spreads that such a crime has taken place but the men got off scot free. This increases their boldness and their arrogance. Saba’s father says it all himself, when he reports that because of his actions, his status has increased in the community. “Now I’m getting proposals left and right for my other daughters. They’ll be too terrified to even think of doing what Saba has done.”

Sharmeen wants the film to be shown everywhere in Pakistan, so that people become aware of the extent of this crime, and how entrenched in society the mindset is that says a girl is a man’s property, to be killed if she is disobedient to his wishes. She invites people to get in touch with her to arrange screenings – in schools, organizations, at festivals, anywhere in Pakistan, so the message can spread across the country. She also wants people to have conversations about this crime, for pressure to be put on the government so that the law is enacted once and for all.

If it takes an Oscar to make that happen, then for once a frivolous, Western-based award ceremony will have actually come to some good.

The Stoning of Farzana P.

This story about a pregnant 25 year old woman, Farzana Parveen, being bashed to death with bricks by her brothers and uncles because she dared to marry of her own choice, is the kind of news that makes your heart drop and your stomach churn.  It’s being called an “honour killing” in the press, but it is murder – in fact, we should call it an execution.

Farzana was going to court in Lahore to testify that she had married her husband out of choice, in response to a fake kidnapping case brought about by her family, who were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the cousin they’d picked out for her.  Thirty people stood and watched as Farzana was shot at and attacked with bricks, but nobody did anything.

It reminds me of the famous case of Saima Sarwar of Peshawar, who sought legal help from famed human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir, in fighting her own case against her family to divorce her chosen husband and marry a man of her own choice. Saima’s mother and uncle showed up in Asma Jehangir’s office while Saima was there, and her uncle shot her in the head. Saima died, and the uncle was never prosecuted because Saima’s family “forgave” him for the crime.

People in Pakistan get away with these kinds of executions of women because of weak laws, contradictory legislation, and the overarching power of jirgas, or extra-judicial tribal court systems which reserve the harshest punishments for women exercising their free will.

We have a Protection of Women ordinance, enacted in 2006, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, making rape a crime under the Pakistan Penal Code, and also made it illegal to force a woman to marry, kidnap or sell her into prostitution, and accuse her falsely of adultery or extramarital sex.  We also have a bill, enacted in 2004, which makes “honour killing” a crime. A Punjab law minister called for the crime to be tried in anti-terrorism courts in 2011, but I’m unsure whether this was ever enacted.

However, the 2004 law against “honour killing” is contradicted directly by the Islamic law of Qisas and Diyat, which allows a family of a victim to “forgive” the criminal and lessen the punishment or forgo it altogether. Most criminals use this loophole to get away with their crime.

Worse still is that attitudes towards women who marry of their own free choice as having stained the honour of the family still persist. Even the policemen at police stations often won’t register a crime against a woman in this case because they agree with or sympathise with the angry family who wanted her dead.  Combine this with a still-strong jirga system where men get together and condemn a woman (and sometimes her husband or partner, but he is almost never met with the same fate) to death for having acted out of her own free will.

They ignore the tenet of Islam that states any marriage must be enacted out of free will, and that a woman has the right to choose her own husband. This law in Islam is set in stone and cannot be argued with. But the tribal system, which is steeped in patriarchy, ignores this basic fact and still seeks to control the lives and bodies of women by forcing them into marriages they don’t always want.

I’ve often heard activists try to make the phrases “There is no honour in honour killing” and “dishonour killing” stick. It will take more than a few catchphrases to undo centuries of regressive, misogynistic thinking and attitudes, dearly adhered to because it suits the power structure that is already in existence. To get people to understand that an honour killing is murder, plain and simple, is the first step. For a man to understand that his honour doesn’t lie in a woman’s body may be the second step, but to get him to accept that she has her own autonomy and independence, and control over her own body is a final phase in the evolution of Pakistani society that may take generations to achieve.

In the meantime we’ll have people like Farzana and her unborn child, beaten to death with bricks grabbed from a construction site, outside a court in Lahore, while onlookers do nothing but watch and take photographs on their cell phones. We will have a nation where the laws do not protect women. We will have a country that people look at in disgust and horror, and grimace at, and thank God they do not have to raise their daughters there.

Farzana must not die in vain. We must use her death as a turning point in how we prosecute the executioners of women who exercise their free will. They are braver than all the men who sit in judgment over a woman like Farzana, condemning her to a death she does not deserve.

But do not rest complacent, even those of you who live in so-called civilised societies. All over the world, there is a war going on against women. In Pakistan, it takes the form of Farzana Parveen’s body, prone and covered by a sheet, battered and broken, in the ambulance, with her bewildered husband sitting next to her. In Nigeria, it takes the form of 200 schoolgirls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram. In the United States, we have three women and three men dead because of the revenge fantasies of a spoilt, rich boy who thought that he was owed sex by “blonde sluts”.

We’re already in the middle of the third world war. It is the war for women’s rights, safety, and dignity. We are not winning this war yet. I wonder if we ever will.

ADDITION: In a horrifying twist, we learned yesterday that Farzana’s husband, Muhammed Iqbal, had murdered his first wife – strangled her to death – in order to be able to marry Farzana, whose family approved of the match at first when money would exchange hands over the match. Muhammed Iqbal was “forgiven” under the Qisas and Diyat law by his son (or stepson, I’m not sure which), and then married Farzana. But then the deal with her family went sour, the money didn’t get paid, and Farzana’s family, enraged, waited for the couple outside the court, beat him and killed her. We also found out yesterday that Farzana’s sister was also killed by her family previously. This is starting to make all the people involved look like serial killers.

What we can clearly see is that “honour” is usually the pretext for murders that take place over money, property, or other family feuds. And then, after the “forgiveness” law is invoked, often a girl from one family will be offered in marriage to a man from the other family in order to end the conflict. It goes on and on, and only the women are made to pay the price for the machinations of these cold-hearted killers.

The real victims in this awful case are the two wives of Mohammed Iqbal. And the hundreds of women murdered each year in similar circumstances. Women’s lives are like currency to be squandered by the men who believe they own them – what a disgusting state of affairs.