Sharmeen's win & women's rights
SHARMEEN Obaid-Chinoy has won a second Oscar and the prime minister has promised legislation to eradicate the scourge of 'killing for honour'. The stage has thus been set for a grand debate on Pakistani women's remarkable struggle to realise themselves and the state's inability to keep pace with them.
A few words about appropriately reading the award-winning documentary first. Its strength lies largely in its subsidiary title, 'The price of forgiveness'. Sharmeen avoids detaining the viewer on the young girl's heroism in pulling herself out of the watery grave prepared by her father and uncle, and concentrates on the pressure on her for a compromise.
The factors that persuade Saba Qaiser to forgive her father and uncle for nearly killing her - the poverty of her husband's family, the social power of the privileged class, and the inadequacies of the legal system - constitute a formidable challenge to reform advocates. (Sharmeen adds to her credit by eschewing any reference to the girl's filial bondage to her heartless father.)
Perhaps the most telling part of the film is a short monologue by the triumphant father after his release from jail. Without any trace of remorse or repentance in his conduct he strides forward to proclaim that his decision to kill his daughter has raised his stock with the community, and that several high-placed boys are now keen to wed his younger daughter. A woman is ravaged, and the answer is the state's delivery of a cheque to her family. He is the epitome of feudal brutality and obscurantism that legitimise a whole range of despicable customs - from vani and swara to auction of girls and karo kari - the monster that the state has fed and fattened for six decades at the cost of the people's basic rights. He is not speaking to anyone in particular, he is mocking the entire population of Pakistan. This is a fine example of cinematic art although the pessimistic message might displease women activists. Sharmeen, however, scores high by preferring realism to romanticism.
The government is under pressure now to honour the prime minister's pledge regarding legislation to eliminate honour killings. The task is not easy.
It is a measure of the social prejudice against women that the Qisas and Diyat law has consistently been wrongly applied to cases of 'honour killing'. Instead of taking up the question of forgiveness only after the guilt of the accused has been established, the practice of releasing him at any stage of trial is contrary to the law. It is said that the government is thinking of making forgiveness subject to a judicial order. That is unlikely to make a material change.
The matter does not relate to cases of honour killing alone; it has its roots in the change in criminal law made by reducing murder to the level of a private affair between the killer and the victim's family. What is needed, at the minimum level, is the reintroduction of the concept of murder as a social crime and restoration of the court's authority to punish the offender regardless of the victim's family's choice between revenge and acceptance of blood money. It is doubtful if a significant reform is possible without critical reappraisal of the theological issues underlying the legal dilemma.
It is good that the custodians of power have begun to bask in the glory achieved by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy - or by Malala or Samina Baig. But is their conscience ever pricked by the realisation that the brave women of Pakistan are doing their people proud without any help from the state, and often in spite of it?
The state is unfortunately persisting with a symptomatic response to social evils. A woman is ravaged, and the answer is delivery of a cheque to her family. A woman is killed by her relatives for asserting her right to choose her life partner, and the answer is an order to professional draftsmen to tighten the law. Payment of compensation to victims of male brutality and a search for more effective laws are in order but these gestures leave the cause of women's suffering untouched.
There is little wisdom in hailing Sharmeen's endeavours without realising the state's obligation to provide for facilities and incentives for the promotion of audio-visual arts - which are at the moment under threat from commercial dealers in merchandise of doubtful value, nor in indulging in pro-women rhetoric without tackling anti-women fatwa factories. If the state really wants to ensure that all the Malalas and Saminas and Sharmeens that our society is capable of producing do have the possibilities of realising their potential it will have to create an environment in which the genius of our girls - and of boys too, for that matter - can flourish regardless of the backwardness of their birthplace and the poverty of their parents.
We can have no respect for politicians and their apologists among experts who believe that the Pakistani people's genius can find expression in any field - politics, education and the pursuit of sciences and the arts - without a systematic demolition of the feudal culture and without freeing people's belief from the clutches of its traditionalist interpreters or the stamp of Arab imperialism as Iqbal put it.