1 Mar 2011

Canadian social worker exposes the religious and cultural assumptions at the root of honour killings

Calgary Herald - Canada February 20, 2011

Canada's Oprah shines light on 'honour' killings


Back in the mid-1990s, a reporter asked Oprah Winfrey why she rarely interviewed victims of domestic abuse any longer. She replied that when her show started, many were reluctant to discuss such topics publicly. That silence ensured too many people would not seek help. But years later, public intolerance of abuse was widespread and she thought such interviews were largely unnecessary.

Oprah's comments came to mind again after a recent conversation with Aruna Papp. Unlike Oprah, Papp is not a household name. But most readers might recall an issue she helped pitch into Canada's public consciousness last summer: "honour" killings.

That subject was not new. That a father, son or other male relative murdered a daughter, sister or wife for "dishonour" had already made headlines in Canada over the past decade. But Papp's study, Culturally-Driven Violence Against Women, garnered significant media, policy and political attention because it put such violence in its proper context.

Papp's work was notable for its bold assertion that these killings were culturespecific, i.e., that while domestic violence occurs everywhere, such murders resulted from specific cultural norms (including some anti-women religious assumptions) prevalent in southeast Asian communities. To combat such violence on an educational and social work level at least, it thus needed to be addressed in that framework.

A social worker who has laboured extensively in Toronto's newer ethnic communities, Papp knows of what she speaks. Growing up in India, her father was abusive; so too was her first husband (15 years her senior, a union that resulted from an arranged marriage when she was just 17).

In her first marriage, Papp long feared for her life even after her divorce, as her ex-husband, her parents and even her grandmother "could kill me and she would get away with it," said Papp in our recent exchange. It wasn't until she had been in Canada for many years (she arrived in 1972) that Papp began to carve out an independent life.

Papp has her critics. Some come from the enclaves where such murders take place and where too many are silent, perhaps out of fear, or in some cases, out of a cultural bias that should be challenged. But just as often, the most predictable critics are young, urban, university educated white women who think culture can never be blamed for anything.

Such reticence is found among those who elevate open-mindedness above observation and thus make tolerance the mortal enemy of moral clarity. Such myopic, morally relativistic tolerance-first types can see faults in their own culture, but they are blind to the warts that exist in other cultures.

The same critics also have a weird guilt complex about pointing out the obvious: One's belief system will affect one's actions. So to get to the root of a problem -"honour" killings in this case -one must first acknowledge religious and cultural assumptions that can be deadly.

Had undesirable aspects of western culture and its traditional religion been off limits over the past half millennium, the freeing of slaves, women's suffrage and independence, and a thousand other desirable outcomes would have been stifled. In the West, certain cultural presuppositions based upon Christian scriptures were properly challenged. That included selected biblical admonitions that treated women as chattel and approved of slavery.

As applied to other cultures and religions today, a critique of certain beliefs -an over-emphasis on honour or tribalism -should not be read as damning the entire culture, religion or those who participate in the same. When Papp's study was released (which I commissioned at the think-tank that then employed me), one fellow e-mailed me and was insulted because he thought his community was broadbrushed. Wrong. That's the point about individuality: Others may define you by culture, gender or orientation; you may define yourself according to an entirely different set of characteristics (maybe nationalism, political beliefs, your attitude to nature or religion).

The present difference between the domestic abuse in the communities identified by Papp and in mainstream Canadian society is in the motivation and in the subsequent response of such communities. When Mel Gibson was angry and accused of violence by his ex-girlfriend last year, no one excused his behaviour on the grounds that his girlfriend offended the family or community honour. That's not yet the case in all communities where murders for reasons of "honour" have taken place, though I suspect many women in such communities silently cheer on Papp's frank analysis.

Papp's observational honesty and toughness will bring positive change on this file for years, and not just in Canada. Her work on culturally-driven violence (which includes a book later this year) parallels the early efforts of Oprah: to shine a light on attitudes that must first be exposed if they are ever to be disinfected.

This article was found at:

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  1. How my brother tried to kill me in honor attack

    By Anna Coren, CNN April 4, 2013

    Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- It's cold and raining in Kabul and the pothole-filled dirt roads have turned into a sea of mud. We drive up to the gateway of a high-walled compound. A soldier brandishing an AK-47 stands guard outside the building. We've come to a women's shelter to meet Gul Meena -- a 17-year-old girl from Pakistan who shouldn't be alive.

    My crew and I are ushered into a room and sitting on a wooden chair slouched over is small, fragile Gul Meena. Her sullen eyes turn from the raindrops streaming down the window outside and towards us as we enter the room.

    Gul's bright coloured headscarf is embroidered with blue, red and green flowers and covers most of her face. She nervously plays with it and gives us a glimpse of a frightened smile from underneath the fabric. Her guardian Anisa, from the shelter run by Women for Afghan Women, touches her head and gently moves the headscarf back. That's when we see the scars etched deeply into her face.

    This Pakistani girl's life of misery and suffering began at the tender age of 12, when instead of going to school she was married to a man old enough to be her grandfather. She says: "My family married me off when I was 12 years old. My husband was 60. Every day he would beat me. I would cry and beg him stop. But he just kept on beating me."

    When Gul told her family what was happening, they responded in a way that shocked her. "My family would hit me when I complained. They told me you belong in your husband's house -- that is your life."

    After five years of abuse, Gul Meena met a young Afghan man and finally gathered the courage to leave her husband in Pakistan. In November 2012 she packed up some belongings and they made their way across the border into Afghanistan to the city of Jalalabad.

    Gul knew she was committing the ultimate crime according to strict Islamic customs -- running away from her husband with another man -- but she also knew she didn't want to continue living the life she had since her marriage.

    "I'd tried to kill myself with poison several times but it didn't work. I hated my life and I had to escape. When I ran away I knew it would be dangerous. I knew my husband and family would be looking for me but I never thought this would happen. I thought my future would be bright," she says.

    Days later her older brother tracked them down. Armed with an ax, he hacked to death Gul Meena's friend, and then struck his own sister 15 times -- cutting open her face, head and parts of her body.

    Gul Meena shows me these scars -- taking off her headscarf, her finger gently running up and down the raised, freshly healed skin. She touches her head where the blade hit her and then shows me the deep cuts that were made to the back of her neck and her arms. It's clear to me she desperately tried to fight off her brother before she passed out.

    Assuming she was dead, her brother escaped back to Pakistan. Authorities are yet to catch him, but his family denies that he tried to kill Gul.

    Hearing the commotion, a passer-by discovered Gul Meena lying in a pool of blood in her bed, and rushed her to the Emergency Department of Nangarhar Regional Medical Centre.

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  2. With part of her brain hanging out of her skull, neurosurgeon Zamiruddin Khalid held out little hope that the girl on his operating table would survive.

    "We took her to the operating theatre and she'd already lost a lot of blood. Her injuries were horrific and her brain had been affected -- we didn't think she would survive", says Khalid as he shows us photos of Gul's injuries before he sewed up the wounds. In one photo her face looks like a piece of meat that has been hacked apart.
    Khalid said: "We are very thankful to almighty God that Gul Meena is alive -- it really is a miracle."

    But Gul's troubles were far from over. While she'd received life-saving treatment from the doctors and staff at the hospital, she had no one to care for her on the outside. Gul had been disowned by her family and despite the government and authorities knowing that she was alive and receiving care at the hospital, they wanted nothing to do with her due to the stigma and circumstances surrounding her attack.

    For two months Gul stayed in the hospital thanks to the generosity of doctors who donated the money to pay for her medicine. Finally the American-Afghan organization Women for Afghan Women was informed of Gul's situation and took her in, transporting her back to a shelter in Kabul to give her the love and care she so desperately needed.

    "When she first came to us she couldn't talk or walk she was barely conscious -- she couldn't eat by herself. She had to wear a diaper. If we hadn't got her when we did, she wouldn't have survived," says Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women For Afghan Women.

    Gul Meena is one of thousands of women living in shelters across Afghanistan -- many of them victims of attempted honor killings. Tragically this practice still exists in a number of cultures, including certain tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently expressed concern over the 20% increase in civilian casualties among women and girls in Afghanistan in 2012. Moon said: "I'm deeply disturbed that despite some improvements in prosecuting cases of violence, there is still a pervasive climate of impunity in Afghanistan for abuses of women and girls."

    The U.N. claims that 4,000 cases of violence against women and girls were reported to the Afghan Ministry of Women between 2010 and 2012.

    While there are 14 women's shelters in Afghanistan, all of them are funded by the international community, and the concern is that once international forces pull out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014 this funding will disappear. What will that mean for the thousands of women who rely on their services like uneducated, illiterate, homeless Gul Meena?

    Naderi says: "If we send her to her family, she's going to be killed. As far as her family is concerned she's dead. That's the problem for all our women. It's a scary time for Afghanistan and especially for Afghan women, in particular the women in our shelters because we don't know what's going to happen. If they leave here, for most of them it will be a death sentence."

    Gul Meena doesn't think about the future -- and in fact, she wishes she had died the day she was attacked.

    "I've tried to kill myself several times since arriving at the shelter but they won't let me. When I look at the mirror I put one hand to the side of my face. People tell me not to do that ... but I'm so ashamed."


  3. Rights Commission Documents More than 900 Honor Killings In Pakistan

    By RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty April 11, 2013

    ISLAMABAD -- The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says hundreds of women were killed in so-called honor killings in the country last year.

    In its annual report, the HRCP said 913 girls and women, including 99 minors, were killed in 2012.

    The report said 604 were killed after being accused of having illicit relations with men.

    Around 191 were reported slain for marrying their own choice of husbands and going against their families' wishes.

    Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the HRCP, speaking in a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, said many of the perpetrators were close relatives of the victims.

    "In most cases they are identified because they happen to be family members," Yusuf said. "They are either the husbands or the fathers or the brothers. ...In some cases they are also arrested. But...in many cases they are allowed to escape. [And] the conviction [rate] is very low."

    Honor killings are illegal in Pakistan, but Yusuf said such killings are still carried out in remote tribal areas.

    She said many cases of honor killings are the result of decisions taken by tribal courts.

    "This is like any murder," she said. "Honor killings should be considered a crime against the state. It is not a case between two parties. It should be considered as murder, which it is under the law, and the system of tribal justice for taking the law into their own hands needs to be addressed."

    The independent commission noted honor killings were not restricted to the Muslim community.

    It said around seven Hindu and six Christian women were also killed.

    Yusuf said the number of honor killings in Pakistan usually ranges between 600 and 900 each year.

    The HRCP painted a grim picture of human rights in Pakistan, saying ethnic, sectarian, and politically linked violence in 2012 killed some 8,000 people.


  4. CFIs UN Representative Condemns Honor Killings and Human Rights Abuses

    by Center For Inquiry June 4, 2013

    Just as the Center for Inquiry fights crucial policy battles in the United States for science, reason, and secularism, CFI also brings its efforts and advocacy to the international stage, with representation at the United Nations in both New York City and Geneva.

    CFI’s main Geneva representative is Dr. Elizabeth O’Casey, who today delivered a statement condemning the horrifying practice of so-called “honor killings” of women, and the governments that allow perpetrators to evade punishment.

    “We can no longer stand by and watch this horrific violence against women go unpunished,” O’Casey told the Human Rights Council. “This barbaric practice is justified on cultural and religious grounds. We must not allow such grounds to be used to legitimize or excuse such an abhorrent abuse of a woman’s right to life, her right to equality, her right to freedom, or her right to dignity.

    “We urge all member states to do more to protect women from this sort of violence, to punish those who commit it, and to condemn the culture of impunity and religious justification, which not only allows, but encourages, such barbarity.”

    O’Casey joined CFI allies the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the British Humanist Association (BHA) in delivering statements during a debate on civil and political rights, including a joint proclamation delivered on behalf of all three groups urging for greater access to contraception and abortion.

    O’Casey will be working alongside these groups all session long to advocate on behalf of secularist and humanist causes, such as freedom of belief and expression, women’s equality, and church-state separation. Also planned is a statement on the use of torture in Iran and equality for disabled persons around the world.

    “Honor killings, restricted access to reproductive health care, crackdowns on free speech—these are all serious human rights abuses. Secularists have an important voice to add to these discussions, separating policy from the oppressive dogma of religion and superstition,” said Michael De Dora, CFI’s New York UN representative.

    “We are proud to have Elizabeth O’Casey representing the Center for Inquiry, and all of us who believe in reason, secularism, and our common humanity. She is doing a wonderful job bringing the global community’s attention to some of the most critical issues of our time.”


    The full text of CFI’s statement on honor killings can be found here:


    * * *

    The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI‘s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.

  5. Third of teens in Amman, Jordan, condone honor killings, study says

    By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN June 20, 2013

    Almost half of boys and one in five girls in Jordan's capital city, Amman, believe that killing a woman who has "dishonored," or shamed, her family is justifiable, a study of teenagers' attitudes published Thursday revealed.

    A third of all teenagers involved in the study by researchers at Britain's Cambridge University advocated so-called honor murders.

    A key finding was that support for honor crimes was not connected to religious beliefs, but is far more likely in adolescent boys with low education backgrounds from traditional families.

    Professor Manuel Eisner and Cambridge graduate student Lana Ghuneim interviewed more than 850 teenagers, with an average age of 15, for the study, published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

    Honor crimes can include physical assaults, rape, acid attacks and disfigurement, as well as murder.

    They can be triggered by a range of acts thought to bring shame on the family, from premarital sex to adultery to pregnancy outside marriage, or even contact by the woman with a man who is not a relation.

    The researchers say their study is one of the first to attempt to gauge cultural attitudes about honor murders in the region.

    It found that attitudes in support of honor murders "are anchored in a broader system of beliefs about patriarchal authority and dominance, and assumptions about female virginity and chastity."

    This means that any attempt to change views would probably need to tackle the broader cultural support for patriarchal dominance, it said.

    In total, 33.4% of all those surveyed either "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with situations depicting honor killings.

    Boys were more than twice as likely to support honor killings: 46.1% of boys and 22.1% of girls agreed with at least two honor killing situations in the questionnaire.

    About six in 10 teenagers from the lowest level of educational background showed supportive attitudes towards honor killing, as opposed to about one in five where at least one family member has a university degree.

    Teenagers who had a large number of siblings were more likely to condone honor killings than those from smaller families, the study found.

    "While we found the main demographic in support of HKA (honor killing attitudes) to be boys in traditional families with low levels of education, we noted substantial minorities of girls, well-educated and even irreligious teenagers who consider honor killing morally right, suggesting a persisting society-wide support for the tradition," said Eisner.

    "Any meaningful attempt to reduce attitudes in support of such practices requires a broader societal commitment, including coherent messages against honor-related violence from political and religious elites, and decisive action by the criminal justice system."

    Jordan has a long traditional of honor crimes, the researchers note, although it has taken steps in recent years to pass stricter laws against the practice.

    Until 2001, an article of the Jordanian Penal Code stated that a man who "catches his wife, or one of his female close relatives committing adultery with another, and he kills wounds or injures one or both of them, is exempt from any penalty."

    In line with new legislation passed since then, a special court was set up in 2009 to prosecute honor crimes, the researchers say.

    But their study indicates attitudes are not necessarily changing in line with new legislation, even in a younger generation.


  6. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy fights to end honour killings with her film A Girl in the River

    CBC Radio, The Current February 12, 2016

    Left for dead by her own uncle, and father, Saba Qaiser was the intended victim of a so-called honour killing. But she survived to tell her tale.

    Honour killings remain a shockingly common occurrence in Pakistan today. And Oscar award-winning Canadian journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has turned her lens on the phenomenon for her latest film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which tells Saba Qaiser's story.

    It's been nominated for best Documentary Short at this year's Academy Awards. It won't be the first time Obaid-Chinoy will walk the red carpet. In 2012, her film Saving Face won in the Short Documentary category.

    Speaking to Obaid-Chinoy about Saba and that pressure she was under to forgive stirred some complicated feelings in our gest host Amanda Lindhout. You can listen to her essay about forgiveness on the audio link at:


    Website for: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness



    AMANDA LINDHOUT: Hello, I'm Amanda Lindhout and you're listening to the Friday edition of The Current. Still to come, the future of the Syrian crisis could lie in Aleppo, a former bustling hub and commercial capital has been bombed into rubble, but it hasn't fallen yet to the government forces. We'll get the latest from the region and find out what last night's apparent diplomatic breakthrough could mean for Aleppo and other Syrian cities under siege. But first, the voice of one girl speaking for many.


    transcribed audio content

    A pistol was pointed at my brain near my temple and my uncle was clutching my neck but I was just slightly able to tilt my face, which led to the shot missing its target. Then they put me in a bag and threw me in the river.

    AL: Left for dead by her own uncle and father, Saba Qaiser was the intended victim of a so-called honour killing. She survived to tell her tale but every year, many other women and girls in Pakistan do not. Honour killings remain a shockingly common occurrence there today and the Oscar award-winning Canadian journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, has turned her lens on the phenomenon for her latest film. It's titled A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and it is the story of Saba Qaiser. It's been nominated for Best Documentary Short at this year's Academy Awards and I've reached Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in San Francisco. Hello.


    AL: Tell me about this girl. Who is Saba Qaiser?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Saba is an 18-year-old girl who comes from a small town in Pakistan. She is not very educated, she was engaged to a young man, had fallen in love with him, but her uncle opposes the marriage because he wanted her to marry someone else. So, she ran away from home and got married to Qaiser and her father and her uncle duped her into coming back. Instead of taking her home, took her to a dark, wooded forest, shot her, and threw her in the river. And I found her a few days later in the hospital.

    AL: So, we've heard a bit of the description of the attack but can you tell us further details? What did they do to her?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Well, what had happened was that her father and uncle had come to the in-laws’ house where she was living and had said that you know, she has dishonoured the family by running away, so why don't you send her back home and you come and take her in a few days in an honourable manner.

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  7. Instead of taking her to the house, they took her to the forest where it was very dark at night and they had a gun which they pointed at her after beating her almost unconscious. And then they pulled the trigger, but because they were amateurs, they almost missed because she moved her face. Then she was tied in a gunny bag and thrown in the river. Miraculously, the water woke her up and she caught hold of some reeds that were on the side of the river, and then rolled out and found her way to a fuel station, a petrol station that was open. The guard that was present over there, the night watchman, he called the Rescue 1-1-2-2 services, which is the 9-1-1 of Pakistan. The paramedics came, they rescued her, took her to the local hospital which was run by a man who really believes in women’s rights. He got his best surgeons out there and a local policeman helped apprehend her father and uncle. But actually, the story shows that in Saba’s case, the local services worked. The paramedics worked, the hospital worked, and the police officer as well. Unfortunately, the law did not support her.

    AL: How unusual is it for a girl or woman to survive an honour killing?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: It is very unusual for a woman to survive an honour killing. You know, I've been trying to make a film about honour killing for a long time, but almost always the victim is dead and oftentimes nobody even knows her name, her body is never found, no one even registers the case because it is considered shameful for the family to do so. When I picked up the newspaper one morning and I read two lines in it that said that a girl had been shot and been thrown in a river in what appeared to be an honour killing, I was shocked that she’d survived and that's why I decided to pursue the story, because it's absolutely very rare. To tell the story of an honour killing, you have to get it from the perspective of a survivor because you want the audience to walk in the shoes to understand the ordeal, the trials and tribulations, and what they're up against by society.

    AL: Can you tell me more about this idea of honour that the father was talking about?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: You know, for years now there is this concept that the honour of a young woman who defies her parents and chooses to get married and have free will-- if an older woman who was married once-divorced, in trivial issues of inheritance, in pressing matters of disagreement, men kill women and claim that it is in the name of honour. But really, it is cold-blooded, premeditated murder. Somehow they are trying to make it look like it is part of Islam or part of culture, but a religion that gives its women the freedom of choice, of marriage, inheritance, divorce, definitely does not condone honour killings. What has happened is that there's been a loophole in the law in Pakistan which allows for forgiveness to take place. The father kills his daughter and his wife can forgive him. Brother kills his sister and the parents can forgive him. And so, the laws are manipulated and it's very seldom that people go to jail and because people don't go to jail for it, many people think that it's not a crime because people get away with it. You can go to small towns or villages in Pakistan and even medium sized cities and know people who have killed women and their families but are roaming around free. Until we start making examples of people, people will continue to think that it is okay to kill a woman and somehow there is something known as honour killing.

    AL: We're going to hear from Saba now, again. Here she is in your film describing how she felt after the attack.


    transcribed audio content

    I will never forgive them, no matter what happens or who comes in the middle. These people touched the Qur’an and lied. Even if someone powerful asks me, I will not forgive them. The world should see this ...

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  8. ... brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts so this doesn't happen again. They should be shot in public in an open market so that such a thing never happens again. With God's will, I'm going to fight this case. With His blessing, I will move forward.

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: You know, initially Saba was determined to fight the case. She has an excellent pro bono lawyer, she went to court a few times. The police is very keen that she fight this case because they had invested a lot of resources into finding her father and uncle. But, society pressures are too great in communities in Pakistan and the neighborhood elders would gather every day and tell her in-laws that she's further shaming the family by continuing to fight this case. They told the family that if the family ever needed money or if the family ever needed anything, they could no longer come to the community for it because the community would shun them if they did not forgive the father. The way the community has made it sound like, it was Saba’s fault she had run away and her father had no choice left but to kill her; that it was Saba’s good wishes that she survived but now she must forgive. For a while her in-laws resisted the pressure, but they are very poor and at the end of the day they had to give in and Saba had to go to court and tell the judge she was forgiving her father and her uncle and that she was okay with them walking free.

    AL: How often are women expected to forgive these kinds of heinous acts?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Women routinely forgive acts like this in Pakistan and it's because the justice system is stacked against them. They cannot afford to go to court for years and society pressures and the community pressures are always so great. That's why it is very important to remove the loophole in the law that exists, that it's not a crime against a person, it's a crime against the state and the state has to prosecute, and people have to go to jail. As long as people know that this loophole exists in the law, women will be forced to forgive because that's how society is structured in Pakistan.

    AL: So, I found it really interesting that you have her mother and her sister in the film, both of whom are standing by what the men did. How do you explain that?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: It's years of brainwashing. It’s years of having men tell women that they're superior to them, that it's their way or the highway. I interviewed Saba’s father in prison and I asked him did Saba’s mother know about your plans of killing her. And he said she's just my wife, she doesn't need to know anything. When I killed her I went and told her. She couldn't have done anything to stop me. So you know, I mean, that's just how societies function. I I was horrified to hear about the younger sister almost justified the act. That what did Saba expect by choosing to get married on her own free will? This was about to happen. And it is further perpetuated now that Saba’s father is free. It's not only Saba’s mother and sister who think that but there will be all of these other young women in town who will think that Saba made the wrong choice, not her father. Because her father is walking free now.

    AL: We have a clip of the father, so let’s listen to him.


    transcribed audio content

    After this incident everyone says I am more respected. They say I am an honourable man. They say that what I did was right. It was the proper thing to do. I have other daughters. Since the incident, each daughter has received proposals because I am called an honourable man. I can proudly say that for generations to come none of my descendants will ever think of doing what Saba did. My daughters will have fear in their minds that one of their sisters did something like that, and if we do the same God knows what our fate will be.

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  9. SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: And he says that he's gotten more honourable. He's gotten a better stature in society because now people look at him as a sort of a hero. That is why sending people to jail is the first step in making sure we curb honour killings.

    AL: And in the end even her own husband was pushing her to compromise, to forgive. What was that like for Saba?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: You know, at the end of the film Saba says very clearly that I have forgiven my father because of society and the community but in my heart he will always be unforgiven. And you know, Saba’s husband did not want her to forgive her father and he resisted it for a very long time. But again, he didn't control things. Family was very poor, he had to listen to his elder brother, his mother and they didn't have much of a choice. As the film progresses we began to notice they had to do as they were dictated to because of the poverty, because of circumstances that surrounded them.

    AL: So what did Saba do in the end? How was she able to come to terms with making the choice to forgive the people who did this to her?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: I don't think that Saba will ever come to terms with the fact that she's forgiven her father and her uncle. I think that she has just moved on with her life. She was pregnant. She's given birth to a son now, she's looking forward to educating him. And in some ways I think a part of her died the day that she went into court and had to forgive them.

    AL: How do you think that poverty plays a role in all of this?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Poverty plays an enormous role in all of this because if Saba was not poor she would have had more success in court. She would have had more resources available to her to fight the cases against her father and uncle. But having said that, even in wealthier families, the issue of shame is so much. The issue of honour is so much, that most families like to keep these kinds of issues within the four walls of their home. They encourage girls not to talk about it, encourage girls not to pursue the case. We as a society need to open up. We need to have difficult conversations. We need to let young women know that it is okay to fight cases, that it is okay to speak out against injustices and I hope that A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, the film that I've done, is one small step towards that. Because what has happened is that it has started a national discourse in the country about honour killings. We've had for years a lot of people who worked on the issue but suddenly everyone is talking about it. Being nominated for an Academy Award has, I think inspired the Prime Minister of Pakistan to come out with a statement in which he wants the first screening of the film to take place at the Prime Minister’s house and he wants to bring all the stakeholders together to think about how to close this loophole in the law.

    AL: How much of an uphill battle is this for the police and government?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: It's a huge uphill battle for the police because in Saba’s case for example, Ali Akbar, the Chief Investigator took all his resources, went out and found her father and her uncle.

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  10. He wanted so much for Saba to fight the case. He counseled her for a very long time and in the film he says look at the kind of message that Saba would send out, look at the kind of message that will go out to the community and to society, that it is okay to kill a woman and you will walk free if you do that. So, the police find it very frustrating that these loopholes exist in the law and I think in the judiciary as well. Saba’s first lawyer, because she was forced to change her lawyer, but her first lawyer says very eloquently in the film that our judicial system and our courts have become like post offices, where people come in and record a statement and then leave. They're not dispensing any justice because of these loopholes that exist.

    AL: What do you think it's going to take to change that fundamental understanding of these crimes, that they are murder and it has nothing to do with honour?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: I think that the most important thing is that people need to be made examples of. If people start going to jail, one, two, three, four people go to jail, the fifth person will think twice before killing a woman and her family because he will realize that he's going to spend the rest of his life behind bars. I think that is very important and as a society, we've already begun to have a difficult conversation about honour killing. Why do we call it honour killing when it should just be called premeditated murder? Is it part of a religion, is it a part of our culture? I think the film has sparked this conversation in Pakistan, on the internet, on social media, in newspapers, and television channels, people are talking about it, and I think that at least people are talking about it and there comes a certain level of awareness, people educating themselves about the issues. And then, what is hopefully the gap in the law being closed, together I think, they will really impact the way honour killing is processed in country in the future.

    AL: What do you want to Canadians to think about when they hear stories like Saba’s?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: I think I want Canadians to understand that the story of Saba is a story of any woman around the world. Even today, women around the world, even most [indecipherable] women around the world don't have choices over their bodies, over their own lives, over education, where they work. They don’t have freedom to get married and that, despite all of this, young women are fighting for their rights to make sure that in this generation they achieve it. Saba is a fighter and her story will inspire so many other young women to come forward with their stories in Pakistan, and it can potentially inspire the Prime Minister into changing the law. So, the way I look at Saba is that she's a hero and that she had brought upon a national discourse on honour killings simply by telling her own story.

    AL: How is she doing now, are you concerned for her safety?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Saba is doing well. You know, she has a young son now, a donor has come forward and donated a piece of land and she's hoping to build her own home on it. She's also looking to educate her son.

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  11. Things are coming along well for her. She has indicated that if the Prime Minister does move forward with taking a leadership role in changing the law that she would like to meet with him and thank him in person. I think that she's doing well.

    AL: So, what's at stake for the women of Pakistan, and the country as a whole if this continues?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Well, you know Pakistani society is changing. 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25, you have high levels of internet and telephone penetration now, many young women are going to schools and colleges, the economics of the country demands that women work, so women are leaving their homes, which means that more women are becoming economically independent and are beginning to understand what their rights are. I think there's a push and pull factor taking place in a deeply patriarchal society like Pakistan where women want to move into the 21st century, they want more rights and more say over their lives and a lot of people in the status quo are resisting that, which means that honour killings and attacks on women are rising because of that. Unless we start sending people to jail, unless we start making examples of people, these crimes will continue, and they will continue to rise. I think more than ever, it is important now to talk about the implementation of the laws in Pakistan.

    AL: Can Canada help Pakistan stop these honour killings? Is there any role that Canada can play?

    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Yeah, I mean Canada can definitely--Canada leads in terms of women and human rights around the world with Prime Minister Trudeau now, with 50 percent of his cabinet women. I think that a real discussion you know, the Prime Minister of Pakistan is taking a brave and bold decision by saying that he wants to help with honour killings and Canada should congratulate the Prime Minister of Pakistan and offer to see how Canada can help to make sure that his loophole is closed in Pakistan.

    AL: Sharmeen, we want to wish you the best of luck at the Oscars. Thank you so much for being here today.


    AL: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary is called The Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. It's been nominated for an Academy Award in the Short Documentary category. The awards will be given out at the end of February and it won't be the first time Sharmeen will walk the red carpet. In 2012, her film Saving Face, won in the Short Documentary category. That film told another story about attacks on women by those close to them. It was about two women who survived acid attacks and the plastic surgeon working to help them put the incidents behind them. Here's how Sharmeen accepted the award in 2012:



    SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: I just, Danny and I want to dedicate this award to all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan including Dr. Mohammad Jawad who's here with us today. The plastic surgeon working on rehabilitating all of these women, Roxana and Zakia, who are our main subjects of the film whose resilience and bravery in the face of such adversity is admirable, and to all the women in Pakistan who are working for change: don't give up on your dreams. This is for you.

    AL: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepting the Academy Award in 2012 for her short documentary, Saving Face.