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Oscar-winning doc about honor killings shows the power of film
"A Girl in the River" tells the story of Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old woman in Pakistan who survived a murder attempt by her father and uncle. The idea of honor killings goes back to tribal societies in which reproduction was crucial to group survival. - photo by Allison Pond
In a breathless acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for best short documentary film, director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy noted that Pakistan's prime minister vowed to change the country's laws on honor killings after viewing her film "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness."

"This is what happens when determined women get together," she said. "That is the power of film."

According to the film, 1,000 women are killed each year in Pakistan by their own families for bringing shame on the family by refusing an arranged marriage, being in an unapproved romantic relationship, engaging in sex outside of marriage, or even being raped.

"A Girl in the River" tells the story of Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old woman in Pakistan whose father and uncle beat her, shot her in the head and threw her in a river to die because she married her boyfriend against her uncle's will, Obaid-Chinoy told NPR. Miraculously, she survived, having moved her head as the bullet was fired so it damaged her cheek but didn't kill her. She staggered to a gas station and was taken to a hospital, and her father and uncle were put in jail.

In their book "Sex and World Peace," authors Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad F. Emmett explain the tradition of honor killings. In tribal societies, women were the "reproducers" not only physically, but also in terms of passing on the culture. A woman reproducing with someone outside the group, whether by choice or by force, could threaten the survival of the group.

Protecting women from "capture" by other groups through force or seduction became a group issue, leading in some societies to "protections" that limited women's freedom. This is also how female sexual status became associated with the group's honor and how the double standard for men arose, they write.

"The concept of honor/shame societies also helps us to understand rape as a crime of power, not a crime of sexual desire. Rapes target in such societies is not women; rapes target is men and families. Rape shows that the men could not protect the chastity of their women, hence emasculating them," wrote Hudson et al. "(This is why) the women who are raped are viewed not as victims to be supported but as stains to be erased."

It was important to Obaid-Chinory to tell the story from the perspective of a victim in her film, she told NPR, in order to put a human face on a legal loophole that allows honor killings in Pakistan to continue despite being technically against the law.

Under current Pakistani law, if a father kills his daughter, the wife can forgive the husband and he will go free. If a brother kills his sister, the parents can forgive him and the law will leave him alone.

That forgiveness caveat is what Obaid-Chinoy wants changed, and it explains the subtitle of the film: "The price of forgiveness."

In her acceptance speech, Obaid-Chinoy recognized not only strong women, but also courageous men as an important part of creating positive change.

She expressed gratitude "to the men who champion women ... to all the brave men out there like my father and my husband who push women to go to school and work and who want a more just society for women."
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