Pakistani filmmaker and journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on devoting her life to exposing violence against women. By Sarah Price.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s compelling journey

Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

The first time I see Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy she is surrounded by a small team of people. We’re at the Dendy Cinema at Sydney’s Circular Quay for a double screening of her documentaries: Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Standing in front of the screen, Obaid-Chinoy tells the audience that her aim is to have the conversations most people don’t want to have, to tell the stories that are not being told. She smiles, then disappears into the darkened reaches of the cinema. The lights are dimmed and the audience is transported to Pakistan, to images of dusty streets and square buildings, and of brutality against women.  

Zakia’s mouth is lopsided, her left nostril bare, the flesh on her face burned so deeply that the pink hollow of her eye socket cannot hold a glass eye. She was at the courthouse seeking a divorce when her abusive, drug-addicted husband threw battery acid over her face. “She’s mine,” he tells the camera, “it’s a matter of my dignity.” 

In a cement-walled room in the family home, Rukhsana’s husband threw acid at her face, before her sister-in-law tossed petrol over her, and her mother-in-law lit the match. Rukhsana still has both her eyes, but the shiny skin on her face and neck is pulled tight and mottled with scars. She still lives with her husband and in-laws. After the attack they built a brick wall inside the house, so Rukhsana could no longer see her daughter. 

At times, there are audible gasps from the audience. Beside me, my friend whispers, “Oh, my God.” The red wine we are drinking suddenly seems inappropriate. 

Shot in the head, stuffed in a bag and dumped in a river by her father and uncle, 18-year-old Saba was left to die. Her crime was to fall in love with a man her family considered unsuitable; her punishment – death. More than 1000 women a year in Pakistan are reported to be killed in the name of honour. Survival, such as Saba’s, is rare. Honour killings in Pakistan, and in other countries around the world, are becoming more prevalent. 

Only 40 minutes in length, the films are over quickly. Later, Obaid-Chinoy will tell me the short time frame is important: “It is enough for an audience to deal with.” 

Obaid-Chinoy appears in front of the screen again, this time to a standing ovation. She tells the audience her greatest asset is being a woman. Being a female filmmaker is less threatening, she is trusted, can go places a man cannot go. “The best films shatter your own stereotypes,” she says. “As a filmmaker, you don’t know where they are going. As a filmmaker, you need people to empathise, to shed some tears.” For Obaid-Chinoy it is important that her documentaries encourage a national discourse, that they begin global conversations.  

In 2012 Saving Face made Obaid-Chinoy the first Pakistani to win an Academy Award. This year she won her second for A Girl in the River, adding to a coveted list of accolades that includes six Emmy Awards, and a Crystal Award for outstanding effort in promoting human rights through film. Her 2010 TED talk, Inside a School for Suicide Bombers, has been viewed more than a million times online. In 2012 she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

 In her acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards, Obaid-Chinoy proclaimed, “This is what happens when determined women get together”, before thanking the brave men who champion women, “who want a more just society for women. This week the Pakistani prime minister has said he will change the law on honour killings after watching this film. That is the power of film.” 

1 . Speaking the truth

A few days later I meet Obaid-Chinoy in a hotel suite at Darling Harbour, where she sits in front of the window. Sheaths of sunlight illuminate one side of her face, and catch the gold flecks in the voluminous scarf at her neck. Her dark hair falls halfway down her back, framing her head and shoulders like a glossy, protective shield. She looks noble. When she speaks, Obaid-Chinoy’s voice is direct, her eye contact unwavering. “In Pakistan I am considered a divisive figure,” she says. “There is a lot of effort made to silence me.” 

Born and raised in Pakistan, she started working as a journalist because she was angry. At the age of 14 she was writing for newspapers, by 17 working as an investigative journalist, “naming and shaming” people. In an attempt to silence her, the men in one of her stories spray-painted Obaid-Chinoy’s name, and profanities, across the front fence of the home she shared with her parents and five siblings. Worried about the reaction of her family, she considered giving up journalism, but, “my father said if I spoke the truth that he would stand with me, and so would the world”. 

She then went on to study economics and political science at Smith College and Stanford University in the United States, before returning to Pakistan. There was never any training in filmmaking, just the internet, and a few really good mentors. Having perseverance and being stubborn, she says, goes a long way. Every time one of her proposals was rejected by a production company, she simply pitched it somewhere else. Now, at 38, Obaid-Chinoy has made more than a dozen documentaries in 10 countries, and is the mother to two young daughters. 

Having children has calmed her, she says, yet, “I still choose my subjects based on my barometer of anger”. She has made films about Pakistan’s transgender community, about child terrorists and the Taliban, and the refugee crisis in Iraq. In the Philippines she made a documentary about the Catholic Church and its role in an underground abortion industry. Her film, Humaira: The Dream Catcher documents the journey of Humaira Bachal, a young woman who started educating girls under a makeshift shelter in Moach Goth, just outside Karachi. Humaira started teaching at 13.

Young women need female heroes, Obaid-Chinoy tells me. “A young girl in Pakistan knows it is possible to become prime minister because she has seen it. I always tell young girls: never take no for an answer. If a door has not opened for you, it is because you have not kicked it hard enough.” 

Somehow, we begin talking about Kim Kardashian. “If she is what you aspire to become, there is a problem: how the world is objectifying women, and how women play a role in objectifying themselves,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “Do what you want with your body – but if you are a role model to millions of girls around the world, you have a responsibility. That responsibility needs to be taken seriously. People say women have come such a long way. I think, actually, women have not come a long way at all.” 

In a country such as the US, she says, a woman can’t even decide if she wants to be pregnant or not. “We’re talking about the freest country in the world. That conversation shouldn’t even be happening.” 

“People think of me as a radical feminist, but I’m not a radical feminist. I’m just getting people to sit for a second and to think about the world. And to think about where women are in the world. 

“In the most progressive societies, men don’t even let women sit on the boards of companies – educated men from the best universities in the world. How is that different from a village council across the world, where uneducated men decide who sits on it, and who doesn’t?”

 Misogyny is everywhere, she says emphatically. It’s whether you want to open your eyes and see it, and talk about it, or you don’t. “If there is one thing that unites women around the world, it is how women are treated. Every country, every society in which women live, there is violence.

“What is the difference between a man killing his wife in Pakistan, and a man in suburban Sydney killing his wife?” Violence against women is an epidemic, she says, and we need to deal with it as we would an epidemic, “which is on an emergency footing, coming up with radical ideas, deprogramming the whole system”. 

So that her audience gets both sides of the story, Obaid-Chinoy speaks directly with the perpetrators of violence. “If people live in darkness, how do we expect them to think like us? People make decisions based on their circumstances. I want to understand why a man throws acid at a woman. Why a man might kill his daughter. Unless you understand your enemy, how are you going to fix the situation? We need to understand where the danger comes from. Look at their surroundings, look at their lack of education. I begin to understand why they make decisions. I don’t agree, but I understand. I am not an impartial observer though; I am an activist.” 

Most of the female subjects in Obaid-Chinoy’s films have one thing in common: despite their suffering they maintain an unshakable belief that it is only God’s will that might save them. I ask if this is a cause of frustration for her. “It all has to do with perspective,” she says. “When people have very little to hold on to, they hold on to God. It is universal.” She pauses for a few seconds, then continues. “All the religious leaders in the world use religion to suppress women. If I close my eyes the faces change, but the language and the rhetoric stay the same. Religion is dominated by men. It is interpreted by men. It could just as easily be interpreted by women, Islam specifically. If you read the interpretations by women, it is very different from the interpretations by men.” 

“What, in the world,” she asks, her voice rising, “is not dominated by men?” The world is not ready for women who assert their rights, she says, who ask questions men don’t want to answer. “You only have to look at the hate for any woman who speaks out.” She pushes her phone across the table to show a message on her Twitter account: “This is the stuff I routinely get.” 

The message reads: “You should be raped and murdered.” 

Obaid-Chinoy sits back in her chair, reaches up and runs a hand through her hair, pulling it away from her face. “I’ve saved this to remind myself: this is the price for speaking out.” Since her voice has been “amplified” through winning the Oscars, threats to her personal safety have increased. But she is committed to the cause, she says, committed to making sure people understand it is wrong for a society to treat its women the way it does. “I am committed to asking difficult questions. I think that everyone has a role to play. Mine is to be a pain in the arse.” She is careful who she speaks to and where she goes, other than that, much like the subjects of her films, she leaves her fate up to God. “It’s ironic,” she says, with a wry smile. 

Later, in the hotel’s foyer, Obaid-Chinoy casually tells me she sent Madonna a copy of her film, Humaira: The Dream Catcher. Madonna responded by meeting with Humaira Bachal, before instigating a crowdfunding campaign for a new school in Moach Goth. In front of 80,000 people the three women stood on stage at London’s Twickenham Stadium, where Madonna promised to match every dollar donated by the public. Contributions poured in from around the world. Twelve months later, building works on the three-storey Dream Model Street School, equipped to educate more than 1200 children daily, were complete. 

2 . The burden of the messenger

The night Obaid-Chinoy is due to leave Sydney for Pakistan, she looks tired. We’re at the Event Cinemas on George Street for the screening of her most recent film, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers. From the front row she gives me a wave, then sits low in the padded seat. Her head falls against the backrest. What responsibility does she carry, I wonder? What is the burden of the messenger? 

The film tells the story of a group of Bangladeshi women who formed the first all-women, all-Muslim peacekeeping unit in the United Nations. Obaid-Chinoy’s goal was “to make a kick-arse film about Muslim women that defied stereotypes”. Leaving their families for an extended stay in Haiti, the women struggle to balance work and family, community expectations and personal ambition – issues synonymous with women anywhere in the world. 

When the film ends, a woman in the audience stands and speaks in Bengali. Obaid-Chinoy listens intently: her eyes fixed on the woman, lips moving in silence to her words, gently nodding in response. The woman repeats her message, this time in English: “I am very proud to be a Bengali. There is a stereotype of women in Bangladesh and India; the more it changes, the better. Thank you.” 

The last time I see Obaid-Chinoy she is outside the cinema, standing on the gutter’s edge in the dark. The team of people normally flanking her is not in sight. Around her is the night-time mesh of the city: shopfronts lit in neon, a messy throng of pedestrians on the street, loud voices and traffic and distant music. Obaid-Chinoy is perfectly still. There is less of the fierceness to her now. She is just a woman, quiet and alone, taking, perhaps, time to think about the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 3, 2016 as "Certain women".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.

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