SHEDDING LIGHT ON HONOR KILLINGS
Oscar-honored film deployed against tragic Pakistani rite
Four years ago, an online wedding video that went viral cost three of Afzal Kohistani’s brothers their lives.
The video showed two brothers dancing as women clapped at a wedding party in a northern Pakistan village. A council of elders issued a death sentence against the pair, as well as four women and a 12year-old girl. Their crime: bringing dishonor on their families by violating a strict local code against men and women mingling.
Relatives of the women could not find the two brothers, who went into hiding, so they killed three of Kohistani’s other brothers — along with the women and girl. “In these last four years, there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t asked the question, ‘What did they do wrong?’ ” said Kohistani, 27.
People worldwide may be asking similar questions after a Pakistani film won an Oscar on Sunday for best documentary short subject. A Girl in the River by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy tells of Pakistani teenager Saba Qaiser, who survived an honor killing attempt at the hands of her father and uncle after she married against their wishes.
Around 500 people, mostly women and girls, died in honor killings last year, usually for alleged infidelity and refusing to submit to arranged marriages, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Women’s rights activists say the actual number of victims in orthodox Muslim communities is far higher than officially reported.
“So-called ‘honor killings’ take place in virtually every part of Pakistan, urban or rural, developed or underdeveloped, all social classes, castes, ethnicities, sects,” said Rubina Saigol, a rights activist in Lahore.
Saigol said many “honor killings” are really about something
else. “Honor is simply the excuse used to cover up the crime, which is often for seizing property and settling economic and other disputes,” she said.
A Girl in the River prompted Pakistani officials to claim they are redoubling efforts to end the practice. “There is no honor in honor killing,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said at a screening of the film at his office last week.
Obaid-Chinoy previously won an Oscar and two Emmy awards for documentaries about the Pakistani Taliban and acid attacks against women. “This is what happens when determined women get together,” Obaid-Chinoy said in her acceptance speech Sunday night.
At the Feb. 22 screening, she said the practice flouts Islamic traditions that revere women.
Asma Jahangir, a human rights attorney in Lahore, credits authorities for being more aggressive in prosecuting honor killing cases than 15 years ago. “In the past, political parties and the judiciary justified honor killings, but no longer,” said Jahangir. “The laws have been strengthened but social behaviors are difficult to change.”
A 2014 case that garnered international attention shows how ingrained honor killings are. Farzana Parveen, 30 and pregnant, was stoned to death by her father and other male relatives for mar- rying the man she loved instead of her cousin. The men were sentenced to death for the killing.
Yet an uncle defended the act. “It is the prerogative of the men in the family to decide the future of their daughter,” said Khalid Muneed, who did not participate in the stoning. “This is what differentiates us from the West.”
In the wedding video case, a court sentenced one killer to death and five others to life in prison for the murders of Kohistani’s three brothers. Nobody has been brought to justice for the deaths of the women, whose bodies have not been found.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, speaking in Islamabad at a screening Feb. 22 of A Girl in the River: The Price of For
giveness, vowed that Pakistan would eradicate “evil” honor killings, the topic of the film. At top, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the Oscar for best documentary short subject Sunday.