BY EMILY BETZ
“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” is a documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy that was recently nominated for an Oscar in Best Documentary Short Film and explores the disturbing practice of honor killings.
“A Girl in the River” tells the story of Saba Qaiser, who at 18, was beaten and shot in the face by her father and uncle before being tossed in a river and left for dead. All of this was done in the name of “honor” and “forgiveness.”
Acts like this are, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence in Pakistan and other countries where archaic religious practices hold more sway than modern law. This documentary has received a lot of attention turning people’s eyes towards an issue that is often overlooked, and not just on the red carpet.
Honor killings happen primarily in countries with Islamic roots. When a girl or woman is seen to have committed a sin that has put a tarnish on the family name, her male family members will take her life in order to cleanse the family of the shame that her sin has caused. In many countries the legislation permits these crimes to be committed without any criminal prosecution. These crimes are even often celebrated. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is hoping to help change that through public awareness. Along with the release of her documentary she started a petition to push forward stricter laws prohibiting honor killings. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in response, has pledged to do what he can to eliminate honor killings in Pakistan.
Saba Qaiser was 18 years old when her father and uncle lured her into a van with promises of forgiveness. Saba and her boyfriend had recently eloped against her family’s wishes. Her uncle held her down while her father brutally beat her, then shot her in the head. They stuffed her limp body into a sack and tossed her in the river. She was left for dead.
Luckily, Saba had turned her head at the right moment so that the bullet had only injured her. The rush of cold water roused her, she clawed her way out of the sack, swam to shore and flagged down help.
In Pakistani law, the victim’s family is allowed to forgive a killing, exempting the person from prosecution. Saba wanted justice, but pressures from her new family to forgive her father and uncle outweighed her own desires. So she was forced to have her father and uncle released from prison, uncharged. In a statement to NBC, Sharmeen said that many people they interviewed for the documentary did not feel honor killings were wrong.
“They felt it was acceptable to punish a wife, a daughter or a mother who transgresses from the honor code, even if the ultimate punishment is death,” Sharmeen said.
That is one of the biggest problems activists face in eradicating honor killings.
How do you eradicate something people do not believe is wrong? Her father, after his short time in prison, was unremorseful and willing to do time if it meant bringing honor back to his family name.
“She took away our honor” he said, “If you put one drop of piss in a gallon of milk, the whole thing gets destroyed. That’s what she has done…so I said ‘No, I will kill you myself.’”
Saba is just a lucky one of many. For every case that gets publicity there are an estimated 5,000 others that don’t. Women advocacy groups, like Humanity Healing, estimate the unreported numbers to be as high as 20,000 women yearly.
Another example is the case of Zahra al Azzo. At just 15 years old, she was kidnapped from outside her home and raped repeatedly until authorities found her and placed her in a women’s prison for protection.
Not protection from the rapist, protection from her family.
Her cousin married her to get her out of prison, and hopefully appease her family. But one morning in January, while her husband was at work, Zahra’s brother Fayyez snuck into her room and stabbed her to death in her sleep. He immediately turned himself into authorities, without concern of going to jail. Her family celebrated in the streets with their friends and neighbors. At the time Syrian law, specifically Article 548, said that if a family member witnessed a woman in an immoral act he may kill her without fear of repercussion. It is because of Zahra’s case that Article 548 was repealed in 2009.
Changing the laws protecting people that commit these atrocious and barbaric crimes is not an answer to the problem, but merely a step towards a solution. Many of these countries can not enforce their laws unless people comply with them willingly, and so it is the mindset that needs to change most of all.
The United States has spent billions of dollars since 2001 trying to reshape the middle east with military force. However, as we are finding, it is not so easy to solve violence with more violence. There is a cultural difference that needs to be accepted, and an acknowledgement that religion is not the sole problem. There have been extremists in every religion, and that should not tarnish the religion as a whole. However a separation between religion and government needs to be established. Rather that increasing armed forces, our money might be better spent on education and women empowerment. It is easy to justify a disregard for another country’s problems in favor of focusing on problems at home, but there comes a time when it stops being a cultural difference and starts being an issue of basic human rights. And human rights issues, should be the whole world’s issue.