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Sharmeen Obaid: 'Terror's Children,' and Everyone's

A scene from Terror's Children (2003).

A scene from Terror's Children (2003).

To the extent that there is an explicitly political message in the film, it is that the West ought to provide more charity and humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Why is it that you chose to emphasize this?

There are no NGOs working in the refugee camps. UNHCR is the only NGO working and it is not working for the people in the camps. It is sending the people back to Afghanistan. People here think that there are NGOs working in these refugee camps and perhaps their lives are better. But their lives are not that much better. Maybe it is better because they are not getting killed but not per se. They are worse off than the poorest Pakistanis. So in some way I elicit the sympathy of my audience so that they actually feel some empathy for these children and think twice about all that is happening.

When I made this film, the war in Iraq had not happened. There was a lot of talk about how the war in Iraq might happen any time and the refugee influx from Iraq into other countries might create exactly the same situation as in Pakistan, because the countries around Iraq are not necessarily very well off either. So in some ways it is a universal message about refugee children in these countries.

What are the projects you are working on now?

My second project is also very close to home. I went back home last year and went to Peshawar to find that the MMA government had taken over and they were trying to introduce Shariah law. More and more women were being sent home from schools and colleges and there were people in government who did not want co-education. I found this very upsetting because I grew up in a very different Pakistan. However conservative the society is, I never felt threatened living in Karachi. I could wear jeans and a t-shirt and walk around in certain areas of the city and I was fine. I went to a co-educational school and I never had a man tell me that I need to wear a burqa. But in Peshawar more and more women were being told to stay at home, to cover their heads. For me, that is taking away personal liberties. So I decided to go there and find out how far the MMA is going to go to make Pakistan another Afghanistan.

What is really shocking is that I found links between most of the MMA leaders and the Taliban. So it was a journey of about four weeks where I traveled to Peshawar. I met a lot of these religious school leaders who trained the Taliban. I met a lot of women who are defying them: singers who have been jailed, artists who have been banned. Then I went to Lahore, to find out what is happening over there. The impact of Peshawar is coming to Lahore slowly. The film basically talks about how secular Islam in Pakistan is threatened by fundamentalist Islam and what the repercussions of that are going to be given that Pakistan is the only nuclear Muslim country in the world.

Before we finish, I would like to add that my first film, Terror's Children, has been screened all over the United States, in lots of major cities. One of the nicest things about having it on the Discovery Times Channel is that I got emails from across the country from people telling me that they had no idea that the policies of the US had affected ordinary Afghanis in the way they had. This was a real eye-opener for me: every-day Americans don't have any idea about what is happening to average Afghanis. So in a way, what I tried to achieve, even if it was for a limited audience, has been fulfilled.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.