A Girl in the River

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the first Pakistani public screening of the Oscar winning film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”. I also conducted a Q & A afterwards with the film’s director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who’s been dealing with a lot of controversy in Pakistan for the film’s subject matter and its global success.

The movie’s about a young woman who survived an honor killing and lived to take her would-be killers – her own father and uncle – to court. Did Sharmeen make this film for Western consumption, as a “transaction” as feminist writer Rafia Zakaria puts it, or to gain Western fame and fortune? Or did she do it to hold up a mirror to Pakistani society and to get a difficult conversation going about a societal sickness that kills at least one thousand Pakistani women a year?


TRAILER – A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness from Sharmeen Obaid Films on Vimeo.

Only watching the film can truly answer these questions. And within the first five minutes of its start, you’ll know exactly why Sharmeen made this movie, which is surprisingly lacking in judgment, in preaching, or in overarching pledges to end this horrific form of gender-based violence. Instead, the film unfolds, frame by frame, to tell a searing story of love, murder, survival and redemption: the stuff that many lives are made of, no matter where they’re lived.

It’s Shakespearean in its perspective, starkly told, yet filled with many unexpected moments of beauty. We first meet 19 year old Saba as she’s on an operating table, being treated for the gunshot wounds to her face that were inflicted on her by her father and uncle. We learn that she earned this punishment for leaving her father’s house to marry a man she’d already been engaged to for four years, who her father had approved of initially. He bowed to the pressure of his own brother, who announced that Saba should instead marry his brother in law, and forbade Saba from meeting her fiance, Qaisar.

Saba did not listen. She was firmly attached to Qaisar, and wanted to be with him – as is her right according to the laws of Islam and of human rights. But tribalism and “honor” reign supreme in this backwards part of Gujranwala, where poverty doesn’t stop a neighborhood from being run by its “influentials”. Saba defied them all to marry Qaiser in a court of law. When her family found out what she’d done, they swore they wouldn’t harm her if she returned home so that she could be then sent to her in-laws’ house in a respectable manner.

In the dark of night, her father and uncle took her from her in-laws’ house, to a nearby river. They held her by the neck and put a gun to her head. Saba turned her head at the last minute, which saved her life, but she was still grievously wounded when her uncle pulled the trigger. Then they put her into a bag and threw her in the river.

Saba’s survival from this ordeal is incredible enough. But the journey that follows, to the courts, where Saba wants to see her father and uncle jailed for the crime, is even more incredible. Because in Pakistan, if a man murders a woman for “honor”, the victim’s heirs can “forgive” him and he will be set free. Saba is one of the rarest cases: a woman who survives an attempted honor-killing. Her heirs cannot set her father and uncle free; only she can make the decision.

As family members pressure her and her husband’s family to set her relatives free, we get to know Saba: a vivacious 19 year old who is filled with courage and determination, and an unshakeable belief in justice. Her young husband, Qaiser, is full of tenderness and love for his wife, which provides a necessary counterpoint to the ugliness and hatred of Saba’s father and uncle. These men insist they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, they have acted “honorably” to save their family’s pride. They insist, even from behind bars, that they would do it again, that they would serve their lives in jail for having shown the community that they are men of honor.

The end of the film is a betrayal of Saba and everything that she is fighting for. But even in the midst of this betrayal, there are seeds of hope: Saba is pregnant with her first child, who she wishes to be a girl so that she can “be brave, and stand up for herself.” It makes one think of Malala Yousufzai, who also survived being shot in the head by men who wanted to control her, and brings up the question: why must Pakistani girls be so brave in the face of so much hatred?

I put this question to Sharmeen in the Q & A session afterwards. Was she expecting the controversy? “Yes,” said Sharmeen emphatically. “In a society where there is so much misogyny, I was expecting it. You should see some of the comments that are being left on social media about me. But I wanted everyone to be uncomfortable when watching this film. You should be uncomfortable by what I’ve presented here.”

Sharmeen hopes that the Prime Minister will make good on his word to change the law on honor killings as a result of seeing this film. He promised to do so when the film was shown at the Prime Minister’s House. (Personally, I have my doubts that this will happen: Gujranwala is his personal district, from where he is always elected. The PML-N is totally supported by the religious clergy in the area, campaigning in the last election from Jamaat-e-Islami trucks. The religious right are not on the side of women. Even the Women’s Protection Bill in Punjab that was recently enacted does not allow for any man to be arrested or an FIR filed against him. Violence against women, unlike in Sindh and Balochistan, isn’t criminalized in Punjab, a move that was made to appease the religious right there.)

The fact of the matter is that unless honor killings carry a severe punishment, in the form of significant jail time that cannot be “forgiven” more and more people will do this. Sharmeen says this is exactly the reason why honor killings are increasing in Pakistan. Word spreads that such a crime has taken place but the men got off scot free. This increases their boldness and their arrogance. Saba’s father says it all himself, when he reports that because of his actions, his status has increased in the community. “Now I’m getting proposals left and right for my other daughters. They’ll be too terrified to even think of doing what Saba has done.”

Sharmeen wants the film to be shown everywhere in Pakistan, so that people become aware of the extent of this crime, and how entrenched in society the mindset is that says a girl is a man’s property, to be killed if she is disobedient to his wishes. She invites people to get in touch with her to arrange screenings – in schools, organizations, at festivals, anywhere in Pakistan, so the message can spread across the country. She also wants people to have conversations about this crime, for pressure to be put on the government so that the law is enacted once and for all.

If it takes an Oscar to make that happen, then for once a frivolous, Western-based award ceremony will have actually come to some good.


When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

Pakistan’s Hidden Shame

Mohammed Naqvi and Jamie Doran’s documentary film (airing on Channel 4 in the UK tonight), “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame,” takes a devastating look at one of Pakistan’s biggest taboos – the sexual abuse of boys.  It relates, with sensitivity and compassion, the stories of the young boys who suffer the abuse, the men who harm them with little remorse or guilt, and the small band of social workers, human rights activists, psychologists and medical practitioners who are desperately trying to rescue these damaged boys and keep them together, one child at a time.

Pakistan is a country where sexuality is obsessively repressed, and women have little chance for gender equality – a World Economic Forum report recently named Pakistan the world’s 2nd worst country for equal opportunities for women. The film contends that these two factors have resulted in the horrifying practice of bachabaazi, or pedophilia, as men with sexual needs that can find no other outlet end up abusing vulnerable young boys who wander on the streets, earning money for their families, or having run away from their homes or places of employment.

The idea of bachabaazi was openly talked about in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, where the narrator must rescue his Afghan nephew from the clutches of a depraved warlord. But bachabaazi is neither a wartime phenomenon nor confined to one particular geographical area; it is rampant all over Pakistan, although the filmmakers have focued on Peshawar in order to give the film its narrative anchor.  And one out of every ten children who are abused end up being killed by their abusers in order to keep the crime hidden forever.
Mohammed Naqvi

In this conservative capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, boys are forced to work on the streets because of desperate poverty. Their freeedom of movement and easy access to public places like truck stops, streets, and cinemas makes them the main targets of pedophiles. But this could happen anywhere in Pakistan – Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, or the myriad villages and towns in every province – and it does.

We’re introduced to several young street children under the age of ten or thereabouts who talk with frightening candour about the rape attempts that have been made on them. Then the filmmakers focus on Naeem, a boy of about fourteen who has run away from home after the death of his parents. He has been gang-raped at a bus stop by several men; the pain and trauma of this has turned him into a drug addict, and the film follows him with an unblinking eye as he spirals into self-harm and suicidal impulses.
The film also portrays the efforts of Afzal, a Peshawar-based social worker who tries to help Naeem by bringing him to the day center he runs for street children and getting him off drugs. Afzal’s persistence, compassion, and dedication to his job and to the children he serves lies in stark contrast to Ijaz, the bus driver who admits openly to having raped a dozen children, but claims he is “helpless against [his] desires”.  And there’s Naeem’s older brother, who beat Naeem before he ran away, and says that had he known Naeem had been raped, he would have killed his younger brother with his own hands for bringing shame to the family.

Zia Awan, the lawyer and famed human rights activist, provides a sobering account of how widepread the problem of pedophilia is, while psychologist Rukhsana Malik gives her perspective on how children are first traumatized but then become numbed in the face of the onslaught. And Ghulam Qadri, the Country Director of Save the Children, provides the key to understanding the practice: most of the abusers, he says, were themselves abused as children, so cannot sense any wrongdoing in their actions.

Jamie Doran interviewing Imran Khan

Most Pakistanis would prefer to deny the existence of pedophilia, but the sobering weight of these experts’ words make it impossible to live in such denial.  Yet the experts, and Afzal, the selfless care worker, display a refreshing openness in talking about the issue. So too does Imran Khan, head of the PTI, the political party that rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who professes surprise at how bad the problem is, then promises to create a task force to tackle it. With some progressive Pakistanis willing to accept that there is a problem, perhaps all isn’t lost for the street children – but it will be a tremendous struggle to implement laws and make an uninterested police enforce them.

Naqvi and Doran match each scene of ugliness or horror with an image of equal beauty or innocence: the scars on Naeem’s body as he turns to self-harm, versus the light in his clear-brown eyes and the smile on his face as he watches a Bollywood film; the dust-choked streets where pedophiles lurk versus the jauntily decorated buses and the city of Peshawar wreathed in early morning mist; children laughing and larking around as they swim in a dirty, polluted canal. It’s these startling juxtaposition of images that makes the film visually arresting, accompanied by traditional music and a thoughtful narration that immerses you completely in this depressing world.  But the film requires a strong stomach to watch, and few will be able to actually see it all the way through, so searing is its impact.
This is a film that speaks honestly about the scope of pedophilia in Pakistan, but refrains from blaming or sermonizing. Mohamed Naqvi and Jamie Doran have shown tremendous courage in making this film, creating a much more nuanced picture than if they had laid judgment squarely at the feet of any one entity or cause.  The film will certainly cause controversy in a country where most people would prefer to pretend pedophilia doesn’t exist, or point fingers at the West for having a worse problem with child abuse. But for the sake of these ghost children, who are haunted by their abuse, not just their abusers – Naqvi and Doran have shown us that it’s a far braver decision to tell the truth.

The filmmakers had tremendous support from Pakistani NGOs “who work tirelessly for the betterment of these children,” says Mohammed Naqvi. “These included http://www.sparcpk.org http://aastrust.org and http://sahil.org. If you would like to contribute and learn more about these groups- please do get in touch. Sahil’s Executive Director Ms Manizeh Bano can be reached on info@sahil.org

Here is a blog by filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi on his experience filming the movie. His observation that absolute, desperate poverty makes for an alternate moral paradigm in Pakistan is one of the most profound observations I’ve ever come across.

Thank you to Laura Kramer at Clover Films for the images of the filmmakers and the film. 


I’ve just returned from watching the Bangladeshi film Meherjaan. This movie, released last year, depicts events of the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence, with a focus on the Bengali women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers, but it also included a storyline where a Bangladeshi girl falls in love with one of the soldiers. The storm of controversy that erupted got the movie banned in Bangladesh: angry and hurt, still traumatized by the war, Bangladeshis felt that the movie wasn’t true to the pain and suffering that they experienced during the war, but instead romanticized the love story between the lead character Meher and the Pakistani soldier Wasim Khan (played by my friend Omar Rahim).

Despite the controversy, the movie has been doing the rounds of film festivals all over the world, and has won several awards, including the Moondance Film Festival Best Feature Film award. It was meant to be screened during the Karachi Literature Festival back in February, but because the Festival organizers failed to get an NOC (no objection certificate), this couldn’t happen at the festival venue. I finally got the chance to see it screened at The Second Floor this evening, and it played to an almost full house – the second time it was being screened at this venue, I should add.

I’m not going to write a detailed synopsis – there are Web sites that already do that, and here’s the movie’s official Web site. Also, if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now!

The movie starts with the arrival of Sarah, a “war child”, at the house of the adult Meher, played by Jaya Bacchan. Sarah is the daughter of Neela, Meher’s cousin, who was raped during the war by Pakistani soldiers – Sarah is the child of that rape and was adopted by a couple in Germany. She’s back to find out her past, and it’s through this fairly common cinematic device – a young person investigating his or her family secrets – that we are introduced to the seventeen year old Meher and her story.

Meher and her parents have escaped the war in Dhaka and live in her grandfather’s home, in rural Bangladesh, where her grandfather, Khwaja Sahib, is the local feudal and pir (keeper of the shrine of a Sufi saint); he oversees the affairs of the village and is the person the villagers turn to when they need to have their disputes settled – very similar to the feudal system here in Pakistan that continues to this day. Neela arrives at the house, raped and pregnant, and spends her days in her grandfather’s home dreaming of revenge against the soldiers who assaulted her. There’s also Salma, who’s slightly weird, holds tea parties and assembles weapons made out of branches and twigs, and dreams of marriage. Meher encounters a Pakistani soldier who refused to kill Bangladeshis in a mosque and subsequently runs away from his regiment; wounded and ill, he takes shelter in the house of Meher’s friends, and the two of them fall in love.

The movie is visually stunning. The lush landscapes of rural Bangladesh – rivers, oceans, forests and fields – will invade your senses completely. You almost feel the breeze in your hair and on your skin, feel the water lapping at your feet, smell the scent of sea and fish and flowers everywhere. This heavy sensuality is echoed in the bodies of the women portrayed on the screen: the survivor Neela, whose short, rounded frame blazes with outrage and passion; earthy Salma, who feels no shame in speaking of her desire for a husband and family; and innocent Meher, whose fresh skin and rippling hair remind you of an untilled field or a virgin forest.

And truly, Meherjaan is a movie about women. It’s the women who take center stage in this story: not just the three young women, but the grace and dignity of the grown-up Meher, who has become a sculptress and who welcomes the awkward, androgynous Sarah into her home, who weaves stories around her and offers her a window into her past. We are shown the difference between victimhood, in the fate of Neela, and agency, when Meher saves Wasim Khan’s life, Salma arranges her own marriage, Sarah unearths the story behind her birth, and Neela herself decides to join the freedom fighters in the wake of her ruined chances for marriage and a normal life. All the women in the movie act with courage, honesty, and strength; the men are left far behind, struggling to keep up.

The strongest male character in the movie is that of Khwaja Sahib, who as the guardian of a strategically important village must maintain the balance between the opposing demands of the villagers, the freedom fighters, the party workers, and the Pakistani army officer and his troops. He does this by falling back on loyalty to the Muslim League (who opposed the creation of Bangladesh) and on his own Sufi Muslim faith, which places utmost importance on humanity and decency before rituals and rules. He’s not infallible, and makes several mistakes, one of which later costs him his life. But his interactions with the soldiers, the villagers and the freedom fighters illustrate the complexity of Bangladeshi nationalism, and when he dies, there is a real sense of the passing into history of an older, more graceful way of conducting political affairs, intertwined with religious and societal considerations, that can never be regained.

The love story between Meher and Wasim (the title of the movie comes from a moment when Wasim calls Meher “Meherjaan”, or “darling Meher”) is a rather obvious symbol of the relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh: the pain caused by the separation of the two lovers is meant to evoke the pain felt when East and West Pakistan split and became two countries, never to meet again. But the two young actors play their roles so well that it never feels forced or cliched, rather, it all feels fresh and evocative, like one’s own first love. There’s also a startling interplay between eroticism and innocence, as we are shown shot after shot of Wasim Khan’s naked torso and the villagers are heard talking about his muscles and height (which also represents the power of the Pakistani army, with its brute force and violence), but the physical intimacy between the two lovers is restricted to hand-holding and innocent embraces, and Meher seems naive, almost child-like in her interactions with Wasim. But while she is innocent in matters of the body, she is wise in matters of the heart.

Finally, the aching loss of love and the pain of separation is highlighted in the movie by the rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 1974 poem “Hum ke thehre ajnabi” (We are now strangers) by Nayarra Noor.  I’m not a fan of Urdu poetry, but the eloquent couplets of Faiz’s poetry about the return from Dhaka brought tears to my eyes and I cried like a child for the last twenty minutes of the movie. I wasn’t the only one: when the lights came on, there was hardly a dry-eyed person in the room.

We are strangers now

After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now –

After how many meetings will we be that close again?

When will we again see a spring of unstained green? After how many monsoons will the blood be washed

from the branches?

So relentless was the end of love, so heartless –After the nights of tenderness, the dawns were pitiless,

so pitiless.

And so crushed was the heart that though it wished it found no chance –after the entreaties, after the despair — for us to

quarrel once again as old friends.

Faiz, what you’d gone to say, ready to offer everything,even your life –those healing words remained unspoken after all else had

been said.

(Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)