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Interview: Filmmaker Of Saba’s Story – Girl Who Survived An Honor Killing

Originally published (February 29, 2016) on NPR: Goats and Soda.

Titled “A Girl In The River”, this Oscar-winning documentary by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy tells the story of Saba Qaser, the Pakistani girl who survived being shot in the face, and then thrown in the river by her own father. 

You can listen to the interview from Steve Inskeep’s sit-down with the film’s creator, Sharmeen.

The following is a transcript of Steve’s interview with filmmaker, Sharmeen:

Saba Qaiser, "Girl in the River."

Saba Qaiser, “A Girl in the River.”

STEVE INSKEEP: Saba Qaiser’s wedding day was almost the day of her death. She grew up in Pakistan in a traditional family. At 19, she eloped with a young man whom her family considered too poor. Her decision was the start of an excruciating story.

SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: She defied the family. She decided to get married despite the resistance that her family had to the young man she wanted to get married to. And so to teach her a lesson and to teach the other girls in the family a lesson, they decided to kill her.

INSKEEP: That’s filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She just won an Oscar for her documentary called “A Girl In The River.” The title says what her family did to Saba Qaiser. Her own father and uncle shot her and threw her in a river. It was an attempted honor killing. These killings are common in Pakistan and in many other nations. Ordinarily, we would have heard nothing more about it.

OBAID-CHINOY: It remains within the family. No one files a case. Court cases are not processed. You don’t even know who the women are. Sometimes it’s an unmarked grave. Oftentimes, the body’s not been found.

INSKEEP: But in this case something different happened. Saba Qaiser turned out to have incredible strength. Though horribly wounded, she pulled herself out of the river and survived to tell her story to police and to the filmmaker.

OBAID-CHINOY: I think it was very important to tell the honor killing story from the point of view of a survivor. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the cases the women perish, unable to tell their stories. Saba survived. Not only did she survive, she fought back. She got out of the river. She found a local fuel station. And the beauty of the story is that in this small town, the social services worked for Saba. The paramedics picked her up. She was taken to a local government hospital, which was run by a fantastic doctor who got his best surgeons to save her life. The local police in charge sent out investigators to find her father and her uncle and eventually did and jailed them.

INSKEEP: I just want to mention that in addition to interviewing the young woman, you end up interviewing the father and the uncle. You interviewed just about every player in this drama. I began this experience thinking that maybe there was going to be some dramatic hopeful change. What actually happened?

OBAID-CHINOY: Well, Saba was very determined to fight the case. She wanted to make examples of her father and her uncle. There is a line in the film where she says that, you know, I want them to be shot in public so that no other man, no other father and no other uncle, no other brother does this to a woman in his family. And when I first met her, she had this fire in her. And she had a wonderful pro bono lawyer.

They went to court. They began the proceedings. But the law did not support her. In Pakistan, in cases of honor killings, the way it works unfortunately is that if a father kills his daughter his wife can forgive him. If a brother kills a sister, the parents can forgive. In this case, because Saba survived, the community members, the neighborhood, they said that they would ostracize the in-laws if she did not forgive.

Through the process of the film, you see her losing hope. And towards the end, she does go to court and pardon her father and the uncle. By the time Saba forgive, I thought that she had actually just succumbed to society. But she said something to me towards the end of the film which really stayed with me, which is I forgive them for the world. I forgive them because of my family pressure and because of society pressure. But in my heart, they will always be unforgiven.

INSKEEP: What happened when you went and found the father and found the uncle? They’re behind bars temporarily, and you talked with them. What did they say?

OBAID-CHINOY: The father and the uncle were defiant. They believed that what they did was right and that they would go back and do it again. Her father said to me, looking straight at me, that yes, she’s my daughter. I wanted to kill her. I provided her with food, shelter. How dare she defy me? How dare she go out without my permission? And I am ready to spend my entire life in jail because this is something that I’ve done for my honor, the honor of my family. She has shamed us.

INSKEEP: Now, when he said those things, I thought about it afterward. And I wondered if his idea of honor actually meant money or a concept of property. He’s saying I spent all this time and money nurturing this girl. I should be able to be the one to sell her off now. Is that what he was saying?

OBAID-CHINOY: Absolutely. I mean, he said something like I used to feed her three times a day. You know, you feed animals three times a day as well. He didn’t look at her as another human being.

INSKEEP: You asked him where it said in the Koran that he could kill her. Although he turned it around in on you and said where in the Koran does it say she can run away?

OBAID-CHINOY: Yes. And at that point, I chose not to argue with him because I was extremely angry because these men get away with saying that this has something to do with religion when it absolutely has nothing to do with religion. You know, I mean, one of the most interesting things about the Muslim faith is that when a woman is getting married, a cleric has to ask her three times if she agrees to that marriage. If she hesitates even once, he is not to marry her off. So how can that religion condone honor killings?

INSKEEP: What are we to make of this case that you explore? Because you point out, it’s a best-case scenario. There are laws against this sort of thing. There were local authorities willing to try to enforce the laws. In the end, nothing happened. Where does that leave Pakistan? Where does that leave women?

OBAID-CHINOY: Well, the film has created quite a stir in Pakistan. The prime minister came out and said that he wanted to work on the issue of honor killings. And he has since then met with me. He has spoken to members of his political party. They are going to be working to plug the loopholes in the law making sure that there is no forgiveness in cases of honor killings. You know, I think that the prime minister was inspired to come out and speak about this issue saying that there is no place for honor killings in Islam and that we must make that clear to everybody.

INSKEEP: So the solution that’s envisioned here is telling judges you can no longer dismiss these cases. You can’t…

OBAID-CHINOY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: …Just take a little testimony and let it go away.

OBAID-CHINOY: So if this law passes, honor killings will be a crime against the state, not against an individual, which means the state has to prosecute and you cannot forgive.

INSKEEP: Although I’m just thinking of the justice system in Pakistan, a lot of things can go wrong there.

OBAID-CHINOY: A lot of things can go wrong. But Steve, if in a town three or four people go to jail for it, the fifth will think twice before shooting somebody in his family.

INSKEEP: Which is the opposite of the situation now. You interview the father after he’s released from jail. And he effectively says I got away with this, and now I know my other daughters will behave.

OBAID-CHINOY: Not only that – he is a hero in his community because he walked away free. Now, had he spent his lifetime in jail, the men who live in his neighborhood would have thought twice about doing this to their daughters, to their wives. But now they too know that if they go ahead and kill somebody in their family that they will walk free. It is a very, very bad sign to send to people and one that needs to end very quickly in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, thanks very much.

OBAID-CHINOY: Thank you.

🔝

Coming Soon. Watch this inspiring film “A Girl In The River” inside our Documentaries section.


NPR: She Survived An ‘Honor Killing’: Oscar-Winning Documentary Airs Tonight

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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