Meet the Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Who Exposed the Issue of Honor Killings in Pakistan

“In my part of the world, when you speak out you’re often silenced,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy told a crowd at the annual Stanford Global Studies student dinner in April. “Ten years ago, if you asked me what happens when a woman shakes the status quo, I would say very little, but now I would say she would end up in a body bag.”

Obaid-Chinoy, an alumna of Stanford’s International Policy Studies and Communications programs (’03, ‘04), was describing the environment in her native Pakistan, where she recently exposed the controversial issue of honor killings in her Oscar-winning documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.

“It really bothered me that in this modern day and age, culture and religion is being manipulated to kill women,” she stressed, citing that the practice is also prevalent in other countries such as the UK, where 11,000 honor crimes were reported within five years.

“I always felt that people got away with it because they put it under the guise of culture or religion…There is no culture that says it is okay to kill a woman; there is no religion that says it is okay to kill a woman — it is society that enables that.”

After viewing the film, Pakistan’s Prime Minister vowed he would work on changing the law, saying “there is no honor in honor killings.” According to Reuters, the final draft of a bill to curb the practice will be presented to Parliament on July 21.

Through over 20 films in more than 10 countries, Obaid-Chinoy has found that women around the world face similar issues of domestic violence and reproductive rights. It was while making a documentary about access to contraceptives in the Philippines that she realized she could use her films as tools for advocacy. She went undercover to film backstreet abortions and the story galvanized many in Manila to demand change. Now, she feels her job is not only to make films, but also to find and amplify the voices of people who want to speak out, but can’t, in order to effect change.

However, the issues that she takes on in her films — and their success — have made many people deeply uncomfortable, and Obaid-Chinoy has become a very polarizing figure in her country. For example, with Saving Face, her first Oscar-winning film about acid violence against women, many Pakistanis did not want that side of the country shown, she explains, and thus began a relentless campaign to malign her.

While there can be many voices that try to silence her, she has learned to develop a thick skin: “the most important lesson is to continue fighting,” she says. When asked why she continues to live in Pakistan, despite the fact that many women have recently been brutally killed, she answers “people like myself need to live in that country, push the envelope and try to create spheres of change so that we do see the country move forward.”

Obaid-Chinoy has hope that roles in societies can adapt and change “if you allow them to, if men give women the space,” she argues. She witnessed this firsthand in A Journey of A Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers. In the film, she follows a group of 350 all-female UN peacekeepers who leave their families in Bangladesh — a deeply conservative Muslim country — to enforce peace in Haiti, shattering every stereotype about Muslim women, and the men who support them. “Peacekeepers shows that nothing is stagnant,” she explains “even in a deeply patriarchal society.”

In her Oscar acceptance speech this year, she dedicated the award to all the brave men like her father who want a more just society for women. “In many parts of the world, women can’t move forward without their support,” she told Stanford students. While many people talk about educating women, she argues, “I think we need to educate the men in Pakistan.”

Watch her full remarks online. This article originally appeared on sgs.stanford.edu.

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