On Watching “The Mermaid of Churna Island”

Today I watched The Mermaid of Churna Island, a lovely short documentary film on Rosheen Khan, Pakistan’s first female scuba instructor.

(From the official description of the movie: Directed and Produced by Nameera Ahmed
(2014, 21 mins, Urdu & English with English subtitles)

This is the story of Rosheen Khan, Pakistan’s first and only female SCUBA diving instructor, who overcame many hurdles in her young life to arrive where she is now. Rosheen comes from a conservative family background where even getting an education for a girl is a struggle. She met Yousuf Ali, a Master Instructor in Karachi, who propelled her down a path she could never have imagined, taking her on a scuba diving career from where she never looked back. With interviews also of her colleagues, both her male and female students, and Yousuf Ali, the film reveals startling elements not only from her scuba career, but from her personal life, telling the story of a woman of courage who dares to live her dream.

Directed and narrated by Nameera Ahmed, both Rosheen’s scuba student, and a practicing documentary filmmaker in Karachi, this film is shot both on land and underwater by Nameera. It is a very personal account and a subjective response to women’s empowerment in her society, which she gives meaning to through Rosheen’s life. As the film progresses, it peels off layers of meaning, and takes the audience deeper into a poetic inquiry into life, death, desire, and longing.)

The movie introduced us to Rosheen, a woman who comes from a middle to lower middle class Karachi family — not much is told to us about her background beyond that they allowed her to finish high school, then wanted to get her married. But Rosheen had different ideas for her life, and began to scuba dive in secret. The family grudgingly let her go to college, but Rosheen was learning to swim, then to dive, then to get her instructor’s certification under Yousuf Ali’s mentorship.

When they found out what she was up to, they tried to stop her, but Rosheen left home and went to live elsewhere. Threats followed: an uncle called her and threatened to harm her if she didn’t return home. Rosheen told her family that she was of legal age and had the right to live where she wanted and do what she wanted with her life. In the Q&A afterwards, I asked her how she dealt with the threats.

“I just told that uncle of mine that if he tried to do anything to me he would be in big trouble, and he stopped!” Rosheen responded with gusto. “I am too much of a rebel. My family were upset about me doing diving, which is a dangerous sport, and wearing strange costumes. But I told them that I am covered from head to toe, and besides, I’m underwater and covered in bubbles. No one can recognize me.”

Despite these spirited responses, life has been tough for Rosheen, and it shows. She strikes you as someone who is uncompromisingly independent, but there’s melancholy underneath the strong exterior. She seems to have accepted that she won’t marry or have children because there’s no way to adapt her life to the demands of a typical Pakistani family. But the siren call of Churna Island, an island off the coast of Balochistan, has lured her into a different life altogether.

Western women have it easier when they take up adventurous or unusual lifestyles: it’s easier to find a companion who accepts this and might be willing to share the same lifestyle with you. I remember listening to Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq, Pakistan’s first combat-ready fighter pilot, and learning that she was married to a fellow pilot made a lot of sense in this context.

Filmmaker Nameera Ahmed sees a spiritual side to scuba diving, and perhaps that’s what keeps Rosheen going, although she’s far too practical to articulate it in those terms. But Ahmed does. In the film, she says, “When you symbolically drown yourself in the sea, you lift the curtain on a new paradise. And when you come close to death, each time you come back to a renewed life.”

Perhaps when you’ve transcended bourgeois constructs and mediocre social expectations to uncover your own paradise, you become a strange creature — a mermaid, a hybrid, an amphibious being — and ordinary life is never yours to own again.

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Rosheen Khan
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Aziz Sohail of the British Council in conversation with Rosheen and director Nameera Ahmed 
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Rosheen donning her wetsuit
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