Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary has spurred a debate, with many Pakistanis expressing their opinion regarding the depiction of the country by Chinoy. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a Pakistani-Canadian national who completed her undergrad degree in economics from Smith College and later pursued a degree in international policy studies from Stanford University.
Chinoy’s big break was, undoubtedly, when she began to work for New York Times television department as a documentary producer. Chinoy came under the spotlight after her first Oscar for her documentary, ‘Saving Face’. The documentary was based on the lives of two women who were victims of acid attack, and their struggle for justice and healing.
While many thought Chinoy had reached the brink of her career, a few days back she bagged a second Oscar. This time the award is for the documentary, ‘A Girl in the River: the Price of Forgiveness’. The film revolves around the life of an eighteen-year-old girl who survives an ‘honour-killing’ attempt by the people of her village. Despite all the acclaim that her Oscar has brought Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, what stands undeterred is the murky face of criticism that has surfaced atop the underrated appreciation.
Chinoy’s critics primarily accuse her of showing a ‘negative’ image of Pakistan for fame and posterity. In what can only be called shameful, critics have gone to the extent of accusing her of being a traitor and working for some foreign agency or on a foreign agenda. Given the society we live in, no other response could be a better indicator of the misogyny and prejudice entrenched in our system.
Sharmeen’s latest award-winning documentary revolves around ‘honour killings’ in Pakistan. Although there isn’t a shred of doubt that the movie does in fact portray the dark side of Pakistani society, it does by no means defame Pakistan. The question that arises is: aren’t women killed in Pakistan in the name of honour? Doesn’t acid throwing on women happen in our society? Aren’t women gang raped in the country? Aren’t there incidences where women are forced to walk naked down the street?
If the answer to all these questions is a definite yes then what we are being shown is really the mirror. Instead of bombarding the documentary with an onslaught of negative criticism, one should realise that the real message underlying the movie is an outright condemnation of those atrocities by Pakistanis themselves. Simply put, the opposition that is being levelled against those who struggle to reveal the bare realities should be rerouted to the real perpetrators of the heinous crimes. If we still feel that movies such as these are damaging the reputation of the nation, what should perhaps be done is to weed out these evils from society.
The religious Right is particularly offended by Chinoy and has opened the floodgates of venom against her. Her documentary – which is against ‘honour killing’ – is perceived as an attack on their ‘honour’.
We are an interesting bunch of people, aren’t we? Any sane person would ask: where is our ‘honour’ when men throw acid at women? Where is our honour when women are gang raped? Where is our honour when we kill women in the name of honour but the criminal, usually a man, faces no consequences? Clearly, women alone could not have harmed this ‘honour’. Adulteration of various products and substandard medicine, kidnapping of infants, child molestation, corruption – where is our integrity on these issues? Perhaps if documentaries were made on the aforementioned and our ‘honour’ brought under scrutiny more often, we would be a much more civil society.
Where patriarchy is the norm and misogyny the product of that system, such criticism is inevitable. The widespread outrage against the documentary is clearly the reaction of a handful of prejudiced people who have are used to the inherent gender bias in society, and feel increasingly violated as the disparity between the two genders is reconciled by the likes of Chinoy. All manner of techniques are employed to ensure that such people are defamed.
Chinoy’s second Oscar shows that if you are talented, passionate and hardworking, nobody can stop you from achieving your goals. It shows that your determination and commitment will finally pay off. While her success teaches us about the results of hard work, it also unveils the vulnerabilities prevalent in our society, the greatest being our distorted sense of honour.
The writer is a freelance columnist.