On Sunday night, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. This was notable for several reasons: Obaid-Chinoy already won in 2012 for her movie Saving Face, about Pakistani women who are the victims of acid attacks, becoming the first Pakistani to ever win an Oscar. But her second win is even more exciting, because the movie she’s being praised for has a legitimate chance to change things for women in Pakistan, and potentially the world.
During a night that was infamously lacking in diversity, A Girl in the River was a rare highlight. It tells the story of Saba, an 18-year-old girl whose father and uncle attempt to kill her in a so-called “honor killing” after she marries a man from a poorer family than theirs that they do not approve of. Saba miraculously survives the shooting, and vows to bring her father and uncle to justice. What she struggles with is the law in Pakistan, which says that if a victim decides to forgive the perpetuators who attempted to kill them, those almost-murderers can walk free.
There’s a great deal to be hopeful about in Saba’s story: not only did she survive an attack few do, but the male members of institutions that often fail us—lawyers, police officers, doctors—actually turn out to be her biggest supporters. Sadly, what works against her are the deeply ingrained societal pressures that encourage her to forgive her father and uncle so they can support the family financially, and so the community as a whole isn’t racked with strife. You see men and women invoke their reinterpretations or misunderstandings of Islam and the Quran as a way to justify or feel better about their own actions. To say it is frustrating to see this incredibly strong woman silenced is an understatement.
Much is made of how horrific honor killings are for women in Pakistan, but while hundreds of women die a year from them, they’re not specific to that country; though they are more societally accepted in the Middle East and South Asia, they’re also seen in migrant communities in other Western nations. And frankly, the parallels between how religious conservatism manifests in countries like Pakistan and how it manifests in countries like the United States don’t have to be squinted at to be seen: think of those fathers who have their daughters attend purity balls, or use their inaccurate interpretations of The Bible as a justification for why abortion is a sin. Honor killings are the most horrific result of those uninformed, oppressive actions against women, but they are hardly dissimilar.
“This is what happens when determined women get together,” Obaid-Chinoy said during her Oscars acceptance speech, after she cheekily joked, “Thank god I have two of them now.” She went on to thank Saba, producers like Tina Brown and HBO’s Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller, as well as “the men who champion women.”
“The Pakistani prime minister said he will change the law on honor killings after watching this film,” she added. “That is the power of film.” And it’s true: after a special screening and discussion last week, PM Nawaz Sharif praised the film, saying, “We are striving to give women their rightful place in the society, both economically and politically and end all sorts of violence against them and bring the perpetrators of attacks on them to justice.” And after the film won, he added in a statement, “Women like Ms. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy are not only a pride for the Pakistani nation but are also a significant source of contribution toward the march of civilization in the world.”
Obaid-Chinoy (who, I should note, I know through family) is a living testament to how important it is for a range of people to have access to storytelling: living and working in Pakistan, she’s made films about honor killings, acid attacks, and the danger transgender women face—people (usually women) who are often otherwise marginalized. At the screening of the movie I attended, she suggested that she thinks things will get harder for women in Pakistan before they get better, the way things often do when people fight for change. While that’s likely true, that more people know about her work is a small light. And while there’s much to critique about the Academy Awards, it’s worth celebrating when a film like this is honored—one that not only tells a story that’s important, but does it so well that policy could change because of it.
A Girl in the River premieres Monday, March 7, on HBO.
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