Why Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy made A Girl in the River

Published: March 15, 2016

Sharmeen wants the film to be shown everywhere in Pakistan, so that people become aware of the extent of this crime.

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 honour 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?

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 fiancé, 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 ‘honour’ reign supreme in this backwards part of Gujranwala, where poverty doesn’t stop a neighbourhood 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 ‘honour’, 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 honour-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 ‘honourably’ 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 honour.

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 Yousafzai, 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 honour killings as a result of seeing this film. He promised to do so when the film was shown at the prime minister’s house.

The fact of the matter is that unless honour 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 honour 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 mind-set 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, organisations, 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.

Why do you think Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy made A Girl In The River?

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Bina Shah

Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (twitter.com/BinaShah)

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

  • echoboom

    westoxicated “Modern” Pakistani women and writers have been known to stoop to offer BJ and benefits to white americans to get published or grants.Recommend

  • Salman Shareef

    Look at the expressions of Chinoy how her mouth was wide open when she was holding the Oscar.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    To defame my beautiful country, ofcourse. i live in DHA Lahore and there is no such nonsense there. I wonder which utopia province such heinous crime takes place, maybe in mountains somewhere near border of Afghanistan so I dont know why this madam has to pick an issue in such a tiny location and generalize it on whole of Pakistan.

    P.S The trailer looks like it was made in Hollywood. #notbuyingit. #HonorkillingsisawesternpropagandaRecommend

  • DevilHunterX

    Only stupid people believe that there is no such thing as honor killing. Wakeup sheeps. You be next for the slaugther house.Recommend

  • Parvez

    God alone knows…..but this country needs hundreds, no thousands more Malalas, Shermeen Obaid Chinoys…..and yes, Bina Shahs.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Try typing in “honour killing” in search block to see the number of honour killings that occur across Pakistan! I believe that it makes the news at least once a week!Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    wonder if “echo boom” thinks that honour killings don’t exist in Pakistan!Recommend

  • gp65

    “Because in Pakistan, if a man murders a woman for ‘honour’, 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 honour-killing. Her heirs cannot set her father and uncle free; only she can make the decision.”
    Right there you have a problem. A murder should always be a cognizable offense so that the case should always be “State Vs. “. It should not be “Victim’s family vs. murder accused”
    Also from what my Muslim sister in law explained to me Diyyah does not mean that the person is pardoned. It simply means that a person’s life is spared. The person can still be sentenced to life imprisonment. This is something that Pakistan government should look into because this change can be implemented even without disobeying Islamic laws.
    The Diyyah laws are not specific to honor killing and the idea I have suggested should apply to all cases of diyyah if Pakistan is not to have two standards of justice, one for rich who can afford to pay blood money and another for those who cannot.Recommend

  • Reality Check

    thing that you was doing in a gathering with Nawaz Sharif in which a good number of foreigners were present, degrading your own Muslim Pakistan Women in front of them telling them that is the way Pakistanis treat their women, pathetic, a cheaper way to get famous in the world. Yes, I agree there are honor killings in Pakistan but to make it worldwide by presenting Pakistani Women is a crime and you are committing nicely probably another race to win international award. Imran Khan has give the right name to Nawaz Sharif & Co, ‘Ashrafia’, and now you are part of that ‘Ashrafia’, congratulation, you are not different. If you want to do a favor to those women then win the trophy from ordinary Pakistan Public and Women not from these faceless politicians & foreigners. Please for God sake don’t mix your culture with west, it will never help but will make a picture more ugly. I tell you the admiration that you was getting in that gathering was making me to feel more sorry for you than proud. I lived 30 years in Pakistan and now living in the west for the last 30 years, by God what Islam has given respect to a woman no other religion has done so far. Would you like to see adults channels shown in Pakistan the way western women are disrespected in those channels. no you don’t hence if you are so honest with your approach then return the International award back to them and win the real trophy that is working within Pakistan by setting up centers helping those women you think will be subjected to honor killing tomorrow, educate those idiots that you thing will be involved in those honor killing. I very much in doubt that you have the courage to do so to return that International award that you won by degrading your own kind in front of International horizon, if you do I will salute you.Recommend

  • Reality Check

    Who ever wrote this article I am not interested for me you are just one of Nawaz Sharif’s Ashrafia praising Sharmmen out of way efforts I would not say bad but my interest is to make Pakistani Culture a better place to live and that can only be achieved by setting up re-habilitation centers catering sufferers both from men & women side but not letting someone to achieve awards on the pity of Pakistani women internationally. We all know such barbaric incidents are taking place not only in Pakistan but all over the world yes I can understand if Sharmeen makes a short film showing misery to the women all over the world and then win Oscar but no just to portrait a Pakistan Woman is not on it is pathetic approach of her and it must be discouraged. What she needs award from ordinary Pakistanis not from western hypocrites. Let me quote you an small example, what Islamic Law says about a rapist, stone to death, well any comment hence one cannot say that there are no punishments of such individuals who do honor killings in Islam, off course there are but do you expect this Nawaz Sharif Ashrafis is going to impose such Islamic laws I am afraid not because it does not suit their purpose. I hold no grudge against Sharmeen it is the approach that she used to be famous internationally on the pity of Pakistan Culture & Women, and it should be stopped for good.Recommend

  • Reality Check

    It is my pathetic approach but I have to make my point so far I know media quoted there were 1000 honor killings reported last year make it 2000, let me establish the ratio of such killings to the total population of Pakistan:
    2000/180, 000, 000 Times 100 = 0.001 that means approx. 1 out of 100000
    and here we go, Mrs Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy makes it a universal issue on the pity of most loyal, sincere, hard working, beautiful …….. Pakistani Women, and I mean it what I say as these are my personal experiences. Get out from your fancy dreams that we every day see living in western civilization but I always say and no body has answer and I quote:
    If Western Civilization means to kill 2.5 million Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia, etc for their own agendas then I better off not to be civilized!
    You see have a look on your clothing that you wore when received first award and the current, only clothing changed but not mentality that what you needed to change within yourself.Recommend

  • Reality Check

    Yes I agree but with right approach living within Pakistani boundaries, would you being a father put your 14 years still a child daughter in front of these barbaric terrorists? Right answer is you wouldn’t but her father to achieve his own goals put her own daughter at risk and we all know the end result. Can I ask where she is living now, who is using her as propaganda machine? I have no problems with Chinoy’s efforts but approach is wrong and living for the last 30 years in the west mark my words they will give you plenty of awards the only thing that you needed to do go against your own culture and degrade Islam & its values. Yes, we do have plenty of bad sheep within Muslims but it is Muslims Problems why west poke their noses all the tile making situation worse remember killing in Syria is triggered by the west in the first time and we all know the tension created in middle east since then!Recommend

  • Sick of Idiots

    WAKE UP AND LOOK AROUND YOU. It’s people like you that make this world a difficult place to live in for the rest of us. Not everything is a Western propaganda, then again you’ve probably never gone as far as Charrar Pindh in DHA Lahore to know what millions of Pakistani women go through every single day.Ugh. I refuse to believe that people like you actually exist. I truly hope this is a fake account made by some idiot who’s trying to be funny. Recommend

  • Parvez

    You say that you have been living for the last 30 years in the west … is that correct ?Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    Well not in civilized parts of Pakistan. Like I said it happens in mountains somewhere which are cut off from civilization, unfortunatelyRecommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    excuse me mind your language. the hashtag was an exaggerated one but im not dumb enough enough to point fingers at someone else for our own issues. I am just saying these r not as common as this documentary has made it out to be. No woman in my family circle is a victim and niether is anyone in my friends’ circle. We are all happy liberal women of Lahore so I dont believe it when people like u, who out out of hate for Pakistan and their own rage just want to paint the whole country with one brush. Ask yourselves how many people u personally know who r victims of honor killings or acid attacks. NONE!!

    It doesnt happen in mainstream areas, only in bacward towns in mountains somewhere and thats not the Pakistan I live in. Got it? so dont bash my country and wine about how every woman here is at risk of being murdered because that is NOT the truth. Now please admit this.Recommend