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Oscar-Winning ‘Honor Killing’ Documentary Demonstrates The Transformational Power Of Film

CREDIT: Obaid Chinoy Films/Vimeo

Saba fastens a scarf over her face to hide the scars from a gunshot wound to her face after her family tried to kill her.

Pakistani courts sentenced two brothers to death for murdering their sister and her husband just as a filmmaker from the country was awarded an Oscar for her documentary about so-called “honor killing.”

In a rare instance of justice, a judge in Lahore, Pakistan handed down a death sentence and a fine of nearly $10,000 to Zeeshan and Ahsan Butt for killing their sister and her husband after the two married without her family’s approval, which is widely seen as a shameful act in the socially conservative country. 

A few months after the couple was married, the brothers invited them to their home for lunch and shot and killed them.

Pakistani officials have rallied behind efforts to end a climate of impunity around “honor killing” with the release of a documentary by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy called “The Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”

The film presents the story of a Pakistani woman named Saba who was shot in the face by her family and left for dead after she chose to marry for love – and not through a family-arranged marriage as is still common for many across South Asia. Her father, who was involved in the crime, remains unrepentant, and Saba, who was just 19 at the time, has said that she has not forgiven him.

Death For Defiance

About 5,000 women are murdered by their families each year, according to the United Nations. The majority of them are South Asian women who defy their family’s wishes around marriage.

Rafia Asim of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told ThinkProgress last year that her organization receives information about an average of 30 “honor killings” a month across just over one third of the country’s districts. 

“The majority of the cases that we get are not in any newspapers,” Asim said. “The areas that we work in, there are no NGOs there, there are no journalists there anymore, so there’s no news coming out of those areas. The reports that we get [of ‘honor killings’] are the only ones, really.”

In many cases, people are loath to report the crimes committed by their friends or neighbors because they believe that matters of enforcing “honor” should be left up to individual families.

RELATED: Telling The Stories Of The Victims Of ‘Honor Killings’

That’s why Obaid-Chinoy’s effort to highlight “honor killings” – and to personally lobby for an end to impunity for their perpetrators – is so monumental.

One major hurdle to winning justice for the victims of “honor killing” will be to close a loophole in the law that allows for the family of victims to pardon perpetrators. Since “honor killings” are often committed by family members, few of those who murder in order to maintain their oppressive sense of “honor” ever face charges for their crimes.

“The biggest victory would be to get the legislation passed — to take forgiveness off the table, to have a law that deters killing women in the name of “honor” and for people to realize that this is a serious crime,” the filmmaker told AFP.

The Power Of Film

She said that an Oscar win would further help highlight the issue. Obaid-Chinoy’s win last night is her second Academy Award. In 2012, she won an Oscar for her film “Saving Face” which told the stories of women who were severely injured when extremely corrosive acid was thrown on them, often in acts of domestic violence.

Her win helped bring attention to more stringent laws for acid burning, a crime which wasn’t explicitly dealt with by the Pakistani judicial system until 2010.

“Women are the most essential part of our society and I believe in their empowerment, protection and emancipation of achieving the shared goal a prosperous and vibrant Pakistan,” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said after he met with Obaid-Chinoy earlier this month.

“Social evils can be overcome through an effective partnership between the government and the civil society,” he added after vowing to introduce more stringent laws against “honor killing” in Pakistan.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the award for best documentary short subject for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the award for best documentary short subject for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Obaid-Chinoy mentioned that promise in her acceptance speech for her Oscar on Sunday. “That is the power of film,” she said.

“This is what happens when determined women get together,” she said. “From Saba, the woman in my film who remarkably survived an “honor killing” and shared her story…to the men who champion women.”

She’s hopeful that that combination of forces can bring about lasting change in Pakistan. More than 8,500 people around the world have signed on to a campaign to call for the passage of the a bill related to “honor killing” which has wallowed in the country’s legislature.

In a video featured alongside the petition, Obaid-Chinoy called on people to back her efforts to end the brutal practice, and “to let people know that ‘honor killing’ is not part of our religion or our culture.”

Cultural Shift

“The fact that the film got international acclaim really spearheaded action by the government,” Yasmeen Hassan of Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization told ThinkProgress. “Obaid-Chinoy makes films on subjects that everyone is thinking about but does not know how to act upon. As such, her films give the public a chance to make desired social and legal change.”

She said that the documentary – and the attention it case on the issue of “honor killing” likely helped lead to the sentencing of Zeeshan and Ahsan Butt for the death of their sister and her husband.

Although she was not in favor of the death penalty, Hassan said that the court decision “shows that the Pakistan government is serious about taking strong action to end impunity for crimes against women and girls and to end ‘honor crimes.’”

While accountability and legal reforms are important, she said that a broader cultural shift will have to take place before “honor killings” can become a thing of the past.
“Police and judges have to be sensitized to the law,” Hassan said. “There have to be efforts through the education system and through Pakistan’s robust media to change perceptions of gender roles and acceptability of violence against women.”

UPDATE MAR 1, 2016 9:15 AM

This article has been updated to include comments from Yasmeen Hassan.

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