For me, storytelling is a powerful form of inciting change. It can reach people in ways that facts, figures and news stories don’t always succeed in doing. An incredible example of the type of storytelling I am talking about is the Oscar winning documentary short, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness by director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
This documentary shed light to honor killings in Pakistan in a way that had never been done before. It resonated with so many people that political pressure mounted and forced Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to speak up against honor killings and about closing the Forgiveness Loophole in the law which let murderers off the hook. This set the ground for two women, from two very different backgrounds to be able to work together to close this loophole.
Let’s start with the documentary.
The documentary follows a young, 18 year old girl, Saba, who was shot and thrown into a river by her father and uncle. She married a man whom her parents originally did want her to marry. However, they changed their minds but Saba had already fallen in love with her original match. The two married and Saba moved in with her in-laws. (In Pakistan, it is traditional to move in with your husband’s family after marriage.)
Under the guise of supporting the marriage Saba’s father and uncle persuaded her to come home so they could give her a proper send off. Instead, they stopped on the side of the road and attempted to kill her. Somehow, Saba survived and her father and uncle were arrested. Saba vowed never to forgive them.
When I watched the interviews with Saba’s family, I was taken back by their self-righteousness. This included the mother and sister, as well. They stood by the shooting. They blamed Saba, saying she had brought this upon herself. They spoke of her as an object. Something they owned. It was all eye-opening and shocking. I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to domestic crime and rape victims. There are lots of stories out there about honor killings, but rarely do we get to see this level of insight into the mentality behind honor killings.
Honor killings do result in arrests. However, there is a large loophole. If the family or in this case, the victim forgives the assailant, then the assailants are free to go. Sometimes the families are given money to compensate for the loss of life and the assailant is free to go. In the case that the family resists, there can be enormous pressure from the village elders and others within the community to put the issue to rest. To move on with life so to speak.
That is what happened with Saba. She did not want to forgive, but did so after enormous pressure was mounted on her and her husband’s family, by the village elders. Her father and uncle were ultimately released from prison.
Enter two lawmakers from completely opposite sides of the aisle. Their names are Shugra Imam and Naeema Kishwar.
When Sughra Imam joined Parliament, people began coming to her about women who had been killed in the name of “honor”. Women who were forgotten about because they didn’t receive any media coverage. Sughra started to draft a bill against these killings which would protect these women. She wanted to do away with the forgiveness clause all together. Her party being the majority, she knew she could get the bill passed, but she knew that in order for the new law to be enforced amongst law enforcement she would need the backing of the religious party as well. Ultimately, her bill, though making it through the Senate, was lost in the National Assembly.
Naeema Kishwar is a conservative who has been consistently fighting for women’s rights. She agreed with Sughra that “honor” killings should be punished but she believed in the forgiveness clause.
Together, Sughra and Naeema needed to work together to find a compromise.
By the time Naeema entered the picture, Sughra was no longer a member of the Senate. It came upon Naeema to act as the go between, between her party and the government. She knew taking out the forgiveness clause was something her party’s leader would not agree to. She had to tread carefully.
Eventually with Sughra and Naeema at the helm, a compromise was reached. Honor killings would carry a mandatory 25 year sentence. However, the death penalty could be avoided through forgiveness.
You can read more details of how things unfolded here.
Thanks to the storytelling of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy which received worldwide attention, the atmosphere was prime for change. It only took Sughra Imam and Naeema Kishwar coming together to fight for that change to take place.
So many women have lost their lives to this barbaric act. My heart is with Saba and every woman whose only crime was to try to live their lives for themselves. To do what makes them happy. To question, defy and break societal chains meant to keep them tamed.
With this posting, in my own small way, I honor every woman in every country who is fighting for something as simple as a voice of her own in this world.
With love to each and every one of you. xx