Why do Pakistanis cheer Brandon Stanton, but attack Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy?

Published: March 7, 2016

No one accused Brandon Stanton of being out to defame Pakistan. No one accused Brandon Stanton of being an agent funded by nefarious organisations. No one accused Brandon Stanton of trying to earn ‘cheap fame’.

Like so many in Pakistan, I was pleased when American photo-blogger Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, visited the country to tell the stories of every day Pakistanis. As with his other excellent work, Brandon shared some moving tales, creating empathy as only he can.

At the end of his Pakistan series, Brandon moved on to a despicable social ill of Pakistan: Bonded Labour, which is used to victimise thousands of Pakistanis and has been described as modern day slavery by the United Nations.

Like any good journalist, Brandon highlighted the issue by sharing several heart-breaking stories alongside striking photos while relating some worrying statistics about the depth of the problem in Pakistan. At the core of Brandon’s narration was activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who despite facing torture and threats has championed the cause of the victims.

As a result of Brandon’s work, the issue earned international coverage.

Twelve hours after the story went live, a million dollars were donated to the website ‘Let’s Help Fatima End Bonded Labour.’

In 72 hours, the figure stood at two million.

Aside from the international followers of Humans of New York, countless Pakistanis followed the series, and were full of praise. Every Pakistani thanked Brandon and commended him for showing the humanity of their countrymen. Others still praised the American for raising awareness on a critical issue that plagues Pakistan.

Some took the opportunity to deliver swipes at Pakistani journalists for not covering the same issues, or telling similarly feel-good stories, as did Brandon early on in his series on Pakistan.

Never mind the fact that a vast number of local journalists do write similar stories, but readers are simply not as interested in reading them in our leading papers. Never mind the fact that it took a popular Facebook page for Pakistanis to care about an impoverished blind man on the street when they pass dozens of such people every day. Never mind the fact that bonded labour is brought up on numerous occasions in our media, is a decades old issue, and only now held significance for our keyboard warriors.

No one accused Brandon Stanton of being out to defame Pakistan. No one accused Brandon Stanton of being an agent funded by nefarious organisations. No one accused Brandon Stanton of trying to earn ‘cheap fame’.

No, unfortunately, we save these ridiculous allegations for our own.

For the second time, Pakistani documentarian Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has earned an Academy Award for a film that brings international focus on a frighteningly widespread issue within the country. Her first documentary, Saving Face, focused on victims of acid attacks. This second one explores the depravity of honour killings.

Similarly to Brandon, Sharmeen’s work hasn’t taken long to affect change. The Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, inspired by the documentary has begun taking some meaningful steps against honour killings.

I suppose there is a joke here that our government is now waiting for international award winning films on bonded labour, poverty, corruption, child marriages, rape, bacha bazi, and more, before taking those issues seriously as well.

But let’s be fair to the Prime Minister. In a nation where religious extremism is spreading like a virus, he is to be commended for taking a stand that is controversial to the right-wingers. Because Sharia Law allows families of victims to forgive murderers through ‘blood money’, brothers, fathers, husbands, and uncles take advantage when they want to murder women in their own family. Ultimately, they have their co-conspirators ‘forgive’ them since they are family. According to Aurat Foundation, over a 1000 women every year are killed in Pakistan under the guise of honour.

If Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy manages to save only a handful of these lives through her documentary then she has done more than most of us. She deserves an Academy Award for not only covering such a prickly subject, but for her skills as a filmmaker.

But for our keyboard warriors, she is a villain who has defamed Pakistan, possibly because she is on the payroll of evil governments, or is just seeking ‘cheap fame’.

I love that term, cheap fame. Our keyboard warriors love throwing it around, as if fame is as important to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy as water is to a man crawling across the parched desert. If anything, this fame hasn’t come cheaply. Perhaps the most expensive cost for the documentarian has been the risk to her own life.

Interestingly enough, these accusations weren’t hurled at poor Brandon Stanton, may he return to Pakistan soon. No, such venom is reserved for people such as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Malala Yousufzai, and others.

Perhaps they are the wrong skin colour for our keyboard warriors. Perhaps they are the wrong gender.

I suppose the greatest irony of it all is that Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is supposed to shut up about honour killings to protect our honour.

Where is the honour in that?

This is the same sort of warped thinking that leads to honour killings in the first place, where shame is so toxic, it out values life-affecting action.

It is a pity that shame is used in Pakistani society as an invisible chain to shackle women.

The misuse of honour was killing women. The misuse of honour is now being used to shame the heroes who come to their aid.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.