An Activist Filmmaker Tackles Patriarchy in Pakistan

Alexis Okeowo in The New Yorker:

SharmeenFor Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, anger is the most useful emotion. Anger was what motivated her to write for newspapers as a teen-ager and to make documentary films as an adult, and it is the reaction she habitually tries to provoke in audiences. Even when she is on camera, she cannot resist interrupting her own narration to register outrage at a particular injustice. Obaid-Chinoy is the best-known documentary filmmaker in Pakistan. Her films, which have won two Oscars and three Emmys, range from reportage on xenophobia in South Africa to an inquiry into the ethics of honor killings in Pakistan. “Anger is necessary for people to go beyond not liking what they see,” she said. “I need enough people who watch my stuff to be moved, and to be angry, and to do something about it.”

On a recent afternoon in Karachi, where Obaid-Chinoy lives, she visited a girls’ school in Shireen Jinnah Colony, a slum, to talk to students and to show some of her films. A volunteer administrator at the school, Tanvir Khwaja, her head covered with a pink dupatta, welcomed Obaid-Chinoy into a vast auditorium decorated with silver and green stars, where rows of eager girls in lilac-hued hijabs sat whispering. Some were as young as eight, while others were in their last year of secondary school. Khwaja had warned Obaid-Chinoy that most of the girls came from a “very, very conservative background.” Obaid-Chinoy, who is thirty-nine, wore a black shalwar kameez; her dark hair, streaked with gray, was pinned back. She is a natural reporter, watchful and carefully expressive, with a heightened impulse to gauge her companion’s mood; she has a habit of smiling quickly to offer reassurance during an uneasy silence. She is also unabashedly confident: at a party in Islamabad, I saw her tell a male guest, within moments of meeting him, that she was an Oscar winner. Soon afterward, she challenged another man, a politician, about his views on China’s business dealings with Pakistan. The politician smiled tightly and congratulated her on having her film about honor killings screened at the Prime Minister’s office. It was a shame, he added, that it showed the country in such a negative light.

Obaid-Chinoy is accustomed to this kind of mixed reaction to her work. Her critics in Pakistan have suggested that her films stoke outrage by confirming the prejudices of Western audiences. Obaid-Chinoy argues that these critics, many of whom are male, are in fact reacting against her own power as a woman, and against the misogyny she is exposing. The position of women in Pakistani society has been disputed since the country was established, in 1947. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for the republic involved a separation of religion and politics, the equality of all Pakistanis, and the nurturing of an intelligentsia. He spoke out against “the curse of provincialism,” and said in a speech, “It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners.” In the decades since Jinnah’s death, in 1948, those in power, most notably General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988, have eroded women’s rights, often in efforts to enforce a conservative, Islamic ideology. Although many Pakistani women attend college and pursue careers in the arts, law, and politics, they also face an entrenched patriarchy that dictates their choices when it comes to schooling, work, marriage, and self-presentation. Poor women have even less freedom. More than half of Pakistani women are illiterate, and many suffer domestic violence. They struggle to have their legal rights upheld, and face accusations of bringing dishonor upon their families if they report a rape or file for a divorce. Through her work, Obaid-Chinoy believes, she is combatting men’s power to define women’s lives.

More here.