She Survived An 'Honor Killing': Oscar-Winning Documentary Airs Tonight | KNKX

She Survived An 'Honor Killing': Oscar-Winning Documentary Airs Tonight

Feb 29, 2016
Originally published on March 7, 2016 7:36 am

This post was updated on March 4.

On March 7, the film that won the Oscar for best documentary, short subject, will have its television premiere, airing on HBO at 9 p.m..

A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness is by Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The 40-minute documentary tackles the tough topic of honor killings in Pakistan, from a rare point of view: a survivor's. Saba, an 18-year-old girl, was shot and thrown in a river by her own family for secretly eloping with her lover — and lived to tell the tale.

The film also examines the interpretations of Islam that allow this brutal practice that claims the lives of more than 1,000 girls and women each year, and the human rights groups lobbying for new laws to protect them.

In her acceptance speech, Obaid-Chinoy said that after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif watched the film, he said he would change the laws on honor killing.

"This is what happens when determined women get together," she said. "That is the power of film."

NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Obaid-Chinoy about the film, why she thinks honor killings are acceptable in Pakistan, and how Saba is fighting back. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What motivated Saba's family to kill her?

Saba was engaged to a young man and she wanted to get married to him. The family was OK with it, but the uncle was not. He decided she should marry someone else. Bravely one morning, Saba ran away from home to a local court and got married. Her father and uncle came to her in-laws' house and said, "Let us take her back to our home, and then you come take her honorably so neighbors and society don't look upon us as a family that has been shamed."

But instead, they put her in a car, took her to a wooded area, beat her for a long time before shooting her, put her in a gunny sack, and threw her in a river. She miraculously survived.

That's what makes this case extraordinary — that there is someone around to tell the story you just told.

It was very important to tell the story from the point of view of the survivor. In 99 percent of cases, the women perish and are unable to tell the story. Saba not only survived, but she fought back. She got out of the river and found a local fuel station. She was shot in her face and her hand, and she was in a lot of pain.

The beauty of the story is that in that small town, the social services worked for Saba. The paramedics, the rescue services came and picked her up. She was taken to a government hospital run by a fantastic doctor who got his best surgeons to save her life. The police responded by providing additional security for her. The police sent out investigators to find her father and uncle, and eventually jailed them.

Did her father and uncle get the justice they deserved?

Saba was determined to fight the case. She wanted to make examples of her father and uncle. There's a line in the film where she says, "I want them to be shot in public so that no other father, man does this to a woman and his family."

In Pakistan, in cases of honor killings, there is a caveat. You can be forgiven for honor killings.

The way it works is that if a father kills his daughter, his wife can forgive him. If a brother kills his sister, parents can forgive. In this case, because Saba survived, the community members in the neighborhood said they would ostracize her in-laws if Saba didn't forgive them. Saba was losing hope.

Toward the end, she does go to court and pardons her father and the uncle. I thought she had actually just succumbed to society. But she said something to me toward the end of film that really stayed with me: "I forgive them for the world; I forgive them because of family pressure, because of societal pressure. But in my heart, they will always be unforgiven."

What happened when you talked to Saba's uncle and father?

They were defiant. They believed what they did was right, and they would do it again. Her father, looking straight at me, said, "Yes, I killed her. She's my daughter and I wanted to kill her. I provided for her. How dare she defy me? How dare she go out without my permission? And I am ready to spend my entire life in jail because this is something I did for my honor, the honor of my family. She has shamed us."

He talks about his daughter as if she's money or property.

He was saying that he owned her and that she could not make decisions on her own. He said something like, "I used to feed her three times a day." You know, you feed animals three times a day. He didn't look at her as another human being.

How has the Pakistani government reacted to the film?

The prime minister came out and said that he wanted to work on the issue of honor killings, and he has since then met with me. He has spoken with members of his political party to plug loopholes in the law. He's saying that there is no place for honor killings in Islam, and we must make that clear to everybody.

If this law passes, the honor killings will be a crime against the state. A lot of things can go wrong [in trying to get this law passed]. But if three or four people go to jail, the fifth person will think twice before shooting someone in his family.

What do you think is the difference between a society where honor killings are acceptable and a society where it's not?

If you look at communities where men feel like they own women, they want to control women. It's all a power struggle. When women enforce their rights, when they want more rights, men find ways to silence them. Killing them is the best way to silence them. This issue of shame and honor — I've always wondered why it has to rest with the woman. Why can't it rest with a man?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Saba Qaiser's wedding day was almost the day of her death. She grew up in Pakistan in a traditional family. At 19, she eloped with a young man whom her family considered too poor. Her decision was the start of an excruciating story.

SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: She defied the family. She decided to get married despite the resistance that her family had to the young man she wanted to get married to. And so to teach her a lesson and to teach the other girls in the family a lesson, they decided to kill her.

INSKEEP: That's filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She just won an Oscar for her documentary called "A Girl In The River." The title says what her family did to Saba Qaiser. Her own father and uncle shot her and threw her in a river. It was an attempted honor killing. These killings are common in Pakistan and in many other nations. Ordinarily, we would have heard nothing more about it.

OBAID-CHINOY: It remains within the family. No one files a case. Court cases are not processed. You don't even know who the women are. Sometimes it's an unmarked grave. Oftentimes, the body's not been found.

INSKEEP: But in this case something different happened. Saba Qaiser turned out to have incredible strength. Though horribly wounded, she pulled herself out of the river and survived to tell her story to police and to the filmmaker.

OBAID-CHINOY: I think it was very important to tell the honor killing story from the point of view of a survivor. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the cases the women perish, unable to tell their stories. Saba survived. Not only did she survive, she fought back. She got out of the river. She found a local fuel station. And the beauty of the story is that in this small town, the social services worked for Saba. The paramedics picked her up. She was taken to a local government hospital, which was run by a fantastic doctor who got his best surgeons to save her life. The local police in charge sent out investigators to find her father and her uncle and eventually did and jailed them.

INSKEEP: I just want to mention that in addition to interviewing the young woman, you end up interviewing the father and the uncle. You interviewed just about every player in this drama. I began this experience thinking that maybe there was going to be some dramatic hopeful change. What actually happened?

OBAID-CHINOY: Well, Saba was very determined to fight the case. She wanted to make examples of her father and her uncle. There is a line in the film where she says that, you know, I want them to be shot in public so that no other man, no other father and no other uncle, no other brother does this to a woman in his family. And when I first met her, she had this fire in her. And she had a wonderful pro bono lawyer. They went to court. They began the proceedings. But the law did not support her. In Pakistan, in cases of honor killings, the way it works unfortunately is that if a father kills his daughter his wife can forgive him. If a brother kills a sister, the parents can forgive. In this case, because Saba survived, the community members, the neighborhood, they said that they would ostracize the in-laws if she did not forgive. Through the process of the film, you see her losing hope. And towards the end, she does go to court and pardon her father and the uncle. By the time Saba forgive, I thought that she had actually just succumbed to society. But she said something to me towards the end of the film which really stayed with me, which is I forgive them for the world. I forgive them because of my family pressure and because of society pressure. But in my heart, they will always be unforgiven.

INSKEEP: What happened when you went and found the father and found the uncle? They're behind bars temporarily, and you talked with them. What did they say?

OBAID-CHINOY: The father and the uncle were defiant. They believed that what they did was right and that they would go back and do it again. Her father said to me, looking straight at me, that yes, she's my daughter. I wanted to kill her. I provided her with food, shelter. How dare she defy me? How dare she go out without my permission? And I am ready to spend my entire life in jail because this is something that I've done for my honor, the honor of my family. She has shamed us.

INSKEEP: Now, when he said those things, I thought about it afterward. And I wondered if his idea of honor actually meant money or a concept of property. He's saying I spent all this time and money nurturing this girl. I should be able to be the one to sell her off now. Is that what he was saying?

OBAID-CHINOY: Absolutely. I mean, he said something like I used to feed her three times a day. You know, you feed animals three times a day as well. He didn't look at her as another human being.

INSKEEP: You asked him where it said in the Koran that he could kill her. Although he turned it around in on you and said where in the Koran does it say she can run away?

OBAID-CHINOY: Yes. And at that point, I chose not to argue with him because I was extremely angry because these men get away with saying that this has something to do with religion when it absolutely has nothing to do with religion. You know, I mean, one of the most interesting things about the Muslim faith is that when a woman is getting married, a cleric has to ask her three times if she agrees to that marriage. If she hesitates even once, he is not to marry her off. So how can that religion condone honor killings?

INSKEEP: What are we to make of this case that you explore? Because you point out, it's a best-case scenario. There are laws against this sort of thing. There were local authorities willing to try to enforce the laws. In the end, nothing happened. Where does that leave Pakistan? Where does that leave women?

OBAID-CHINOY: Well, the film has created quite a stir in Pakistan. The prime minister came out and said that he wanted to work on the issue of honor killings. And he has since then met with me. He has spoken to members of his political party. They are going to be working to plug the loopholes in the law making sure that there is no forgiveness in cases of honor killings. You know, I think that the prime minister was inspired to come out and speak about this issue saying that there is no place for honor killings in Islam and that we must make that clear to everybody.

INSKEEP: So the solution that's envisioned here is telling judges you can no longer dismiss these cases. You can't...

OBAID-CHINOY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...Just take a little testimony and let it go away.

OBAID-CHINOY: So if this law passes, honor killings will be a crime against the state, not against an individual, which means the state has to prosecute and you cannot forgive.

INSKEEP: Although I'm just thinking of the justice system in Pakistan, a lot of things can go wrong there.

OBAID-CHINOY: A lot of things can go wrong. But Steve, if in a town three or four people go to jail for it, the fifth will think twice before shooting somebody in his family.

INSKEEP: Which is the opposite of the situation now. You interview the father after he's released from jail. And he effectively says I got away with this, and now I know my other daughters will behave.

OBAID-CHINOY: Not only that - he is a hero in his community because he walked away free. Now, had he spent his lifetime in jail, the men who live in his neighborhood would have thought twice about doing this to their daughters, to their wives. But now they too know that if they go ahead and kill somebody in their family that they will walk free. It is a very, very bad sign to send to people and one that needs to end very quickly in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, thanks very much.

OBAID-CHINOY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Her Oscar-winning documentary "A Girl In The River" airs tonight on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.