Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has long wanted to make a movie about the thousands of women who have been, and continue to be, murdered in her country by husbands, fathers, brothers and other male relatives who believe the women have shamed their families. But she wanted to tell the story of these so-called honor killings through the eyes of a survivor, a plan that proved daunting until she met Saba Qaiser, the subject of her Oscar-nominated documentary short, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness."
Qaiser, now 19, had eloped and married a man against her family's wishes. Shortly after the wedding, Qaiser's father and uncle found her, took her to a riverbank, shot her in the head, stuffed her in a bag and threw her into the water. Qaiser survived, grabbing on to the reeds near the river's edge, and found help, eventually recovering. But her story was far from finished.
Once police apprehended the father and uncle, Qaiser was pressured to set them free per Pakistan's "forgiveness law," a legal loophole that allows families to forgive the killers.
"You would be hard-pressed to pick up a newspaper in Pakistan every day and not find a story of an honor killing," Obaid-Chinoy says. Government statistics put the annual number at 1,000. Most believe the figure to be double that because knowledge of the killings is kept within the family, the victims often buried in unmarked graves.
The Oscar nomination for Obaid-Chinoy's film has again galvanized debate about honor killings, putting pressure on the Pakistani government to close the legal technicalities that allow the killings to continue unpunished. The movie had a premiere screening Monday in Islamabad at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's home with Sharif and members of Pakistan's senate and national assembly attending.
A week earlier, Obaid-Chinoy had met with Sharif to discuss her film. After their talk, Sharif issued a statement saying that honor killings have nothing to do with Islam, calling the issue "critical" and promising to "adopt all possible ways and means for removing this stain from our society."
"That's a huge deal," Obaid-Chinoy says. "The prime minister has never made a statement like that so publicly about anything related to women. And it seemed like it came from the heart."
If so, it's probably because Qaiser makes for such a compelling subject in Obaid-Chinoy's film. The young woman's plain-spoken courage draws viewers into her story, her anger at her father and uncle palpable. ("They should be shot in public in an open market, so that such a thing never happens again," she says in the movie.) When the local elders eventually persuade her to go to court and publicly forgive her would-be killers so they can avoid prosecution, Qaiser's pain in the face of societal indifference is heartbreaking.
The conversation spurred by "A Girl in the River" follows the high-profile public outcry over the 2014 killing of Farzana Parveen, a pregnant woman who was stoned to death by nearly 20 members of her family outside a Pakistani high court.
"In Pakistan, cultural tradition, government and religious law have all been in cahoots around honor violence, and 'A Girl in the River' is pulling the rug out from under that alliance," says author and activist Amy Logan, who has worked on the issue of honor killings for 20 years.
Obaid-Chinoy remains hopeful that Sharif follows through and sponsors legislation that eliminates the "forgiveness law."
"If people go to jail, the precedent will be set that if you kill a woman in your family, you will go to jail," Obaid-Chinoy says. "Deterrence is the very first step."
Logan would like to see the law changed too, though she believes true societal change will be harder to achieve.
"I don't expect honor violence to end right away because culture and tradition are powerful unconscious drivers," Logan says. "If the proposed amendment is passed, the courts instead of the family will be able to decide if an honor killing is punished or not — and that's no guarantee. Honor killing should be considered murder, period, not negotiated on a case-by-case basis."
Both agree that legislation is a first step. And it likely wouldn't have come without the Oscar nomination for "A Girl in the River."
"As a social justice documentary filmmaker, I am living out my dream," Obaid-Chinoy says. "And when — and I don't say 'if,' but when — we change the law, I think that in a country like Pakistan, it will give others a lot of hope about how we can achieve change in the country."