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The director whose Oscar-winning films advanced Muslim women's rights Open in fullscreen

Alia Turki Al-Rabeo

The director whose Oscar-winning films advanced Muslim women's rights

Sharmeen is the first Muslim and Pakistani woman to receive two Oscars [AFP]

Date of publication: 26 February, 2017

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Interview: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the first Muslim and Pakistani woman to receive two Academy Awards, and whose films helped change misogynistic laws in her country, speaks to The New Arab.
The receipt of two Oscar awards, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is the first Muslim and Pakistan to win this honour.

Her first acclaimed film, Saving Face, tells the stories of survivors subjected to acid attacks by their own husbands while her second academy award winning documentary, Girl in the River: the Price of Forgiveness, exposes the issue of honour killings in Pakistan. The film created intense public debate and eventually resulted in amendment of the Women's Protection Bill in Pakistan.

A journalist specialising in documentary film production, Sharmeen has bagged half a dozen Emmy Awards for several projects including Iraq: The Lost Generation, Transgender: Pakistan Open Secret, Re-invention of the Taliban.

She focuses on taboo aspects of everyday life in the Islamic world. Sharmeen has also produced films about Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, highlighting the plight of women.

Born and brought up in Pakistan's coastal metropolis, Karachi, she completed her studies at Stanford University in America. She is married with a daughter and still lives in Karachi.

The New Arab's Alia Turki al-Rabeo spoke to her at length about her work and its impact on changing the lives of people.

Throughout my career, I have been drawn to stories that make people uncomfortable because they represent unpalatable realities in the world.

Alia: You've made many documentaries on touching issues, some were even taboos. What was the drive? How did you deal with the prospects of being attacked violently?

Sharmeen: As an investigative journalist, I feel that it is my duty to address issues that people do not want to discuss.

Whether it's in Pakistan where the transgender community is fighting for basic rights, or the Philippinnes where women are battling to gain control over their own body through planned parenthood and abortions, or Iraq and Syria where women and children are being kept as slaves in times of war. I want to give a voice to marginalised communities and this is why most of my films focus on women, children and other minority groups.

Throughout my career, I have been drawn to stories that make people uncomfortable because they represent unpalatable realities in the world. As a journalist, I feel that it is my responsibility to highlight and project these issues, as awareness is always the first step in building towards a solution. 

The Girl in the River impressed Pakistan's Prime Minister and he promised to change the law on honour killings. Can you explain the problems with the law for Arab readers and what changes you want to see in it?

 Winners of Best Documentary Short Award for 'Saving Face' [Getty]

The support that we have received from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was much appreciated. The law, previously, saw honour killing as an offence against the individual and not the State and hence the victim could choose to 'forgive' the perpetrator.

If the victim is killed, which is often what happens in such cases, the family of the victim has the right to forgive the perpetrator. So when a father kills his daughter, his wife can forgive him and when a brother kills his sister, his parents can forgive him. This is how the law was being misused. It was important for Pakistan to pass the Anti-Honour Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014, which aims to make the crime non-compoundable so that a convicted person cannot escape culpability by being 'forgiven' by the victim.

Pakistan's passage of the Anti-Honour Killings Bill and the Women's Protection Act is a monumental step

How do you see the impact of the amended law on the situation on ground? Is there any open and frank dialogue on the issue? Or do liberals and Islamists not share a platform to discuss the differences?

Pakistan's passage of the Anti-Honour Killings Bill and the Women's Protection Act is a monumental step in sending out a strong message that the Pakistani government will not stand for the mistreatment of its women – it is high time that women's rights are prioritised and protected.

Even if the legislation is passed and the law is there, how safe will women become from honour killings, which are seen as a personal issue in which the state should not intervene? To a great extent, the situation is very similar in the Arab world.

Honour killings are considered a taboo subject by many in Pakistan. There is a perception that somehow these murders fall under the purview of the family and that they shouldn't be questioned or challenged. For far too long, the lack of liability coupled with an embedded patriarchal system have allowed for honour killings to run rampant.

However, with the recent passing of the Anti-Honour Killings Bill, Pakistan has sent out a strong message that these crimes are not a part of our culture or religion. It is important for the government and the justice system to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are punished.

Strong female characters on-screen are very important.

How far depiction of women in entertainment television can address the issues of gender equality, violence, honour killing and the right to choose a partner?

Strong female characters on-screen are very important. This can play a huge role in changing the mindset of people, as we tend to emulate what we see on television. If there’s one thing I have learned in my career, it is that visual storytelling is enough to inspire change. I believe that film can be a powerful tool to convey complex and difficult problems in a way that prompts dialogue and empathy.

Pakistan has a sizeable number of women who are educated and successful like you while at the same time, many are suffering like Zakia and Rukhsana, the girls we saw in Saving Face. How do you explain this contradiction?

The only thing that sets me apart from most women in my country is opportunity. As a woman, I am fortunate enough to have enjoyed certain liberties – the most important one being an education.

I see myself as a Pakistani who has benefited from a Western education and exposure. I feel that the privilege of having experienced both the West and the East played a large role in giving me the tools to do what I do. Had it not been for this, I would have had the same life as the women in my films.

The first time I felt that being a woman served as a hurdle in getting access or being able to move freely as a journalist was when I was filming Women of the Holy Kingdom in Saudi Arabia

Before the Arab Spring, you worked in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Syria. What has it been like to work in these countries as a woman? What are the similarities and differences between women situation in Arab world and in Pakistan?

I haven't faced any physical danger as such but as a documentary filmmaker, you are trained to deal with life threatening situations. That said, I would be lying if I said that I have never felt fear, or worried about putting my subject and myself in danger.

The first time I felt that being a woman served as a hurdle in getting access or being able to move freely as a journalist was when I was filming Women of the Holy Kingdom in Saudi Arabia. My all-female crew was stopped many times and our tapes were confiscated. We required a male escort for the simplest of tasks such as checking into our hotel. A film that was supposed to be about the women's movement in Saudi Arabia became as much about our experience as female filmmakers in the country.

When I visited Syria in 2008, it was a very liberal country. I was working there on a film, Iraq: The Lost Generation which is about Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan. 

Have you thought of teaming up with likeminded professionals and artists from the Middle East to work on challenges similar to the ones faced in Pakistan? 

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts her award for
Best Documentary Short Subject, A Girl in the River [AFP]

I would love to collaborate with artists from the Middle East, as I believe our regions have experienced similar issues. When I was filming Taliban Generation, the threat of extremism was embedded within the society.

The film forces the world to look at a toxic phenomenon from a humanistic perspective; how the war on terror is impacting children in Pakistan. It allows them to understand the process whereby children in Taliban-infested areas are recruited, and how the cycle is reinforced. Seeing the children's perspective is important, as that is not what meets the headlines. I think the same is true for the Middle East today.

Winning the Oscar was an indescribable moment in my career

What does the Oscar add to one's personality and professionalism?

Winning the Oscar was an indescribable moment in my career. It is the stuff that dreams are made of. It was a testament to my long-held belief that if you work hard and strive for excellence, the world will appreciate your product and your efforts will be recognised.

There is definitely a rise in expectation but this was met with an even greater increase in opportunities. I think people trust my ability to tell socially relevant stories and this has given me a lot more access to marginalised communities. 

Has your quest for Oscars quenched or you will continue to attract world attention through the awards?

I am proud to be have represented Pakistan twice on such a prestigious platform and am grateful that SOC Films production was able to share the untold stories of A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and Saving Face with a global audience.

Since the start of my career I have always endeavoured to share the stories of those who cannot do so themselves, and will continue to do so. I remain steadfast in my pursuit to make documentaries, which will bring about a social impact in the world we live in. For me, the biggest win is the change that such films can inspire.

I have never encountered any gender-based hurdles whilst shooting in Pakistan

Has the Pakistan media, which is obviously male-dominated, accepted your stature? Do you think winning the Oscar was enough to remove gender bias in profession and society?

Interestingly, I have never encountered any gender-based hurdles whilst shooting in Pakistan. During filming, I have found that most people are eager to tell their stories and make their voices heard. Most of the time, people are so taken aback with my forthrightness that they treat me like a man! From a young age, my father instilled a sense of purpose in me, and motivated me to never take no for answer; this motto continues to guide my career today.

How do you see the role of a journalist, an activist or pro-active citizen?

Photojournalists, filmmakers and print journalists around the world that document news and social justice issues are always documenting vulnerable victims and they are trained to do so.

If I'm able to raise a subject, get people uncomfortable about it, get them to ask the crucial questions then I've done my job. I think the most important thing I can accomplish is to serve as a medium through which ideas and realities are conveyed – I want my films to serve as vessels of information that connect audiences, prompt dialogue, and initiate social change. I view my films as active stories that come to life when they are viewed and discussed – the film is oftentimes just the first step in a much vaster and fruitful conversation.

Alia Turki al-Rabeo is an editor at Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's sister publication. She is recipient of UN X-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Alia writes on society, culture and literature. She tweets @alrabeo

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