Oscars: Short Doc Nominee Speaks Out Against Honor Killing, Men Who "Distort" Islam

Sharmeen Obaid - H 2016
Bina Khan/Courtesy of HBO

Sharmeen Obaid - H 2016

Academy Award-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, nominated for 'A Girl in the River,' says: "If the followers distort [Islam], we must not hold the religion accountable for that. We must hold the followers of that religion accountable for it.”

With the Academy Awards just 10 days away, Oscar-winning documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy will first present her latest film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, nominated as best documentary short, before an even more important audience. On Feb. 22, Obaid-Chinoy will screen the film about honor killings for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at his official residence.

Obaid-Chinoy already met with the prime minister on Feb. 15 to discuss the custom, which is on the rise both in her native Pakistan as well as here in the U.S. Following the film’s Academy Award nomination, the conservative prime minister took the unprecedented step of congratulating Obaid-Chinoy and called for anti-honor killing legislation in his country.

“Social evils can be overcome through an effective partnership between the government and the civil society,” Sharif said in a public statement.

For Obaid-Chinoy, who won an Oscar in 2012 for another short documentary, Saving Face, Sharif's acknowledgment of the issue is an important step toward eliminating the practice.

“There is no place for honor killings in Islam,” the Karachi-based filmmaker told The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted to talk [to Sharif] about [strengthening] the legislation because there are loopholes in the legislation which allow for perpetrators of honor killings to walk free.”

In A Girl in the River, Obaid-Chinoy chronicles the story of a 19-year-old woman named Saba who lives to tell of her attempted honor killing by her own family. Saba won’t be on hand at either the prime minister’s screening or the Oscar ceremony. She told Obaid-Chinoy that she will only come forward in the event that significant laws are passed in Pakistan to protect the more than 1,000 women per year who are victims of the practice. Pakistani law allows for a woman’s next of kin to forgive her murderers, and because women there are often targeted by relatives, the so-called “forgiveness law” permits thousands of killers to avoid prison time.

The 37-year-old director said she was motivated to make Girl in the River, which will air on HBO on March 7, because of her oldest daughter, now age 5. (She has since had a second child, an 11-month-old daughter.)

“I want to leave a better country for my daughter, a country in which she has the kind of rights that one would enjoy anywhere in the world — the freedom to get an education, work, speak her mind, fall in love, get married — and all of these rights exist already in Islam,” said Obaid-Chinoy, who is Muslim, of her initial inspiration for the film. “It's just that Islam has been manipulated over the years and distorted to such a degree by men to suit them. There is a big distinction between the religion and its followers. If the followers distort the religion, we must not hold the religion accountable for that. We must hold the followers of that religion accountable for it.”

Sadly, honor killing isn’t merely a Pakistani phenomenon. Obaid-Chinoy said that the practice has crept into Western countries like the U.S., noting two high-profile cases recently.

“There was a young Iraqi-American woman who was killed by her father in a hit-and-run accident because she decided to marry on her own will,” she said. “The second one I know about came from an Indian family, a Hindu family, with similar circumstances it happened. So there have been honor killings in the United States, in Canada, as well as the U.K. They're not just in this part of the world.”

But the best way to combat the problem, Obaid-Chinoy believes, is to send a clear message that the these killers will be treated harshly.

“We have to start sending people to jail to make an example out of that, for people to realize that this is premeditated, cold-blooded murder,” she said.