By Rev SEIK PITOI
SHARMEEN Obaid-Chinoy is one woman with a passion to deal with the injustices of life, especially perpetrated upon women.
The interesting story of how she used her skills and resources to effect change in her nation was shared in a TED Talks programme in April 2019 in Vancouver, Canada.
Sharmeen grew up in Moslem-dominated Pakistan as an inquisitive young girl who pestered her mother each day with her endless questioning. One day when she was 14, her mother, who was raising six children and had very little time for answering questions, told her to write to the local English language newspaper and ask her questions there so the whole nation can answer!
Strangely, her mother’s words became prophetic in shaping her future destiny because at just 17 years of age, Sharmeen became an undercover investigative journalist. She daringly exposed corrupt practices in her society. In one article, she ‘named and shamed’ certain powerful individuals, attracting backlash in return.
The men she wrote about wanted to teach her a lesson so they spray-painted Sharmeen and her family’s name on their front gate and around the neighbourhood using extreme profanities. They wanted her father, “a strict man of tradition”, to silence his own daughter. However, much to the surprise of everyone, her father told her: “If you speak the truth, I will stand with you, and so will the world!”
With that encouragement from her father, Sharmeen felt that she could make an impact in her people’s belief system. She wanted her stories to shake people up and get them to the place of having those difficult conversations. She decided to do something visual, considering most of her people, similar to PNG, are illiterate. So, at age 21, she became a documentary filmmaker.
Sharmeen began her films by reporting on the plight of marginalised communities on the frontlines in war zones around the world.
However, sensing she was not yet done at home, she returned to Pakistan. She felt it was now time to use the powerful medium of film as “a mirror to society” to tackle the sensitive issue of violence against women. In 2014, she narrowed her attention down to “honour killings”. Honour killing is the murder of a girl or woman by her immediate family members, such as her father or brothers, to protect the ‘honour’ of their family for a ‘crime’ she has purportedly committed.
Usually, a ‘crime’ is; marrying someone of her own choice, choosing to divorce an abusive adulterous husband, being suspected of having an illicit relationship, or even being too westernised in dressing! Apart from Pakistan, this is practiced in other parts of the world in mostly Moslem communities.
Sharmeen wanted to use a survivor as subject in her film. Sadly, she soon realised that such women do not live to tell their tales!
Her luck changed one morning, however, when she read in the newspaper about a young woman who had survived an attempt to kill her. She had been shot in the face by her father and uncles for choosing to marry someone out of her own free will. After her release from the hospital, the young woman pressed charges.
Sharmeen kept a close eye on the story, following it through many months as the victim took on the family in court. But the young woman was under so much pressure to forgive. Sharmeen explains: “There was a loophole in the law that allowed for victims to forgive perpetrators, enabling them to avoid jail time.”
The young lady was threatened and told if she went ahead with it, she and her husband and his entire family would be ostracised, treated as outcasts in the community. She fought on gallantly but in the final day in court, she gave in, issuing a statement forgiving them.
Sharmeen realised that if a strong woman could buckle under pressure at the last minute, what chance did the ordinary woman have? The whole community sided with the father saying he was within his rights to kill his daughter to save his honour. That was the perception of the society, an accepted norm.
So how do you change such strongly held views? In fact, how could the loophole of ‘forgiveness’ be closed so murderers are not set free? It was time to use film.
PM supports change of law
Sharmeen and her team immediately put together a documentary addressing honour killing. In 2016, they released the film called, “The girl in the river – the price of forgiveness”. The film did do so well that it won an Academy Award.
Honour killing became headline news in Pakistan and it soon caught the attention of the prime minister. He sent his congratulations to Sharmeen and offered to hold the first screening at his office. It was carried live on national television.
The film had such an impact on the prime minister that he released a statement soon after saying: “There is no honour in honour killing!” He also pledged his support to change the loophole in the law.
People all over Pakistan discussed honour killing and many began to petition for a change in the law. Then, in October 2016, the loophole was closed! Now, men who kill women in the name of honour receive life imprisonment.
But while that was sweet victory, the problem did not end there. The next day, a woman was killed; then another, and another. The law was amended but had the populace, especially the uneducated and illiterate in the rural areas, heard? It was time to take the film to the masses across the country.
Sharmeen’s group fitted out a truck as a mobile cinema. They travelled to many towns and villages screening the films. They not only taught about gender equality and the evils of honour killings, but encouraged children to develop critical thinking so they could ask questions.
Their films also taught on race relations, religious tolerance and compassion, and about competing world views, as well as topics like income inequality and the environment. In many villages, they were well accepted, but in others that were very traditional, the women were not allowed to join the viewing.
To deal with that, the team built a “cinema in a cinema”, outfitting the interior of the truck with seats and a screen so the women could have their own film sessions without being disturbed. It worked wonders! The women learned about their rights under the law and where to go or what to do if they suffered from domestic violence.
Villagers’ eyes opened
They saw films were women were the victors, not losers. They were also shown national and international women leaders, politicians, lawyers and doctors so they could aspire to or groom their daughters to rise to those positions.
The response of the people was positive on the whole. Ordinary villagers had their eyes opened to the truth. It was first time for many of them to see television and they were eager to see their children learn. One village elder said, “These films educate our children about ethics and unite us as a community.”
The films taught that if men are violent, there will be repercussions, but they also featured ‘good men’ who champion the causes of women!
However, there was a price to pay. Two members of Sharmeen’s team resigned when they received death threats from certain villagers, and in one village, the cinema was closed down and the team sent away. But on the flipside, in another village, when they were forced to shut down, one off-duty policeman stood up and ordered it back on, standing by to protect the team throughout the night. He told the people it was his duty to ensure people learned new things that were being presented to them.
Similarly, in another village, when the men said the women could not watch, a village elder stood up and called for a meeting. With dialogue, he managed to convince the villagers otherwise, and the women were then allowed to watch. Sharmeen attributes the success of their programme to ordinary heroes such as these.
Films screening abroad
Recently, the mobile cinema was invited to screen their films in Bangladesh and Syria. Sharmeen says, “We feel it is important to take what we are doing and spread it across the world.”
Indeed, the news of their success in using film to shape society is being heard. She concludes, “in small towns and villages across Pakistan, men are changing the way they interact with women. Children are changing the way they see the world, one village at a time, through cinema!”
Sharmeen shows us what can be done by one woman with passion. She managed to amend the law in her nation, and take the message out to where it is needed the most.
What about in PNG? Can we do something similar, and take the messages that pertain to our situation to the masses – issues such as domestic violence, violence against women and girls, witchcraft related torture and killing, and abuse of drugs and alcohol? Just something to think about!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.