Oscar Winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on Stopping 'Honor Killings'

Author and activist Kati Marton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy discuss her documentary 'A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,' which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject), during a screening and Q&A event at Asia Society New York.

In many ways, Saba Qaiser was an ordinary teenager in Pakistan. Like most everyone else in her community, she was devoutly religious and spent much of her time with her family. However, her life took a dramatic turn when she fell in love with a boy who was of a lower class and decided to marry him against her family's wishes. Believing that she had dishonored them, Saba's father and uncle sought retribution. They shot the 19-year-old in the back of the head and threw her, unconscious, into a river. Against all odds, Saba survived. But though she eventually recovered from her physical injuries, her ordeal was far from over.

Qaiser moved back to her old community to live with her husband and faced a grim mandate: forgive her attackers, so the community could move on. Against her wishes, and under pressure from the community’s elder patriarchal figures, Qaiser complied. She decided to forego any legal action toward her father and uncle.

The Oscar-winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which last night won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentarytells the extraordinary story of Qaiser's physical and emotional strength and the laws and societal structures of Pakistan that failed her. The award was the second for director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Asia 21 Young Leader who was selected as an Asia Game Changer in 2014.

A central thread in the film is how dominant a role a community's male members have on all decisions. 

“Whether it’s in the home or in the courtroom, a woman’s voice doesn’t seem to have the same strength and reach as a man’s voice,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a recent interview with Asia Society.

The director’s interviews with Qaiser’s father reveal a candid and unapologetic man who truly believes he did the right thing by completing the honor killing. Similarly, Qaiser’s uncle felt no remorse for helping his brother commit the murder.

“We keep perpetuating the same mindset,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a recent appearance at Asia Society, where she participated in a conversation with the journalist Kati Marton following a screening of the film. Obaid-Chinoy explained that the Pakistani government needs to “take away the choice to forgive” in order to deter honor killings. Otherwise, women like Saba Qaiser will continue to be pressured to forgive.

“I want to leave a better Pakistan for my children,” the director, who is based in Karachi, said. 

Though its reception in Pakistan has been mixed, A Girl in the River has already catalyzed conversations for change. Earlier this year, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to eradicate “evil” honor killings after watching the documentary by “bringing in appropriate legislation.”

Obaid-Chinoy said she is confident that Sharif will make good on his word, but in the meantime maintained that men supporting women's rights in Pakistan need to speak out against men who do not.

“They are nameless and faceless people in Pakistan but they are there," she remarked. "Their voices need to be amplified.”

About the Author

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Michelle FlorCruz is a Content Producer at Asia Society. She was previously a reporter for IBTimes.com, focusing on stories relating to business and culture in China and other areas of Asia.