Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy tackles patriarchy in Pakistan


For 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 honour killings in Pakistan. “Anger is necessary for people to go beyond not liking what they see,” she told The New Yorker. “I need enough people who watch my stuff to be moved, and to be angry, and to do something about it.”

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 afterwards, 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 honour 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. Through her work, Obaid-Chinoy believes, she is combatting men’s power to define women’s lives.

Obaid-Chinoy’s documentaries have tackled difficult issues like child sexual abuse and rape but have also taken as their subjects people who embody social progress—a female doctor who runs addiction clinics, a young advocate for girls’ education. The didactic tone of her work is most evident in the programs she has made for Pakistani television. The films for which she is best known outside Pakistan, and for which she received international funding, are more intimate, driven by personal narratives. Occasionally, Obaid-Chinoy has refrained from having these documentaries aired on Pakistani television in order to protect her subjects, who fear reprisal. In any case, she told me, “we don’t have a culture of watching such documentaries here. It’s not just my films, it’s everyone’s.”

Between 2002 and 2009, Obaid-Chinoy made a series of films tackling such subjects as the limited freedoms of women in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban’s growing influence in Pakistan, the rape and murder of Aboriginal women in Canada, and illegal abortion in the Philippines. These films had the feel of prime-time news reports, animated less by narrative or aesthetic appeal than by Obaid-Chinoy’s charismatic presence onscreen. In “Reinventing the Taliban?,” made in 2003, she walks through Peshawar as men stare in curiosity. “I’m probably the only woman around,” she announces while exploring a rough neighbourhood. At one point, she tries on a burqa—“My God, you can’t even breathe in here,” she says—and enters a local college, where she criticises the Taliban before a group of men praising the militants. “Is the whole world wrong when they say that the Taliban regime is repressive?” she asks one man. “They used Islam as a front for their own ideas of what’s right and wrong.”

“Saving Face”, for which Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, her co-director, won an Oscar in 2012, is the first of her documentaries in which she does not appear onscreen. The film follows Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon who treats women who have been disfigured by acid attacks. (According to Pakistan’s human-rights commission, there had been hundreds of such attacks in the previous five years, many of them perpetrated by men against current and former wives and lovers.) The acid-attack victims belong mostly to the lower class, as distant from Obaid-Chinoy’s experience as the girl begging at the car window, but she creates an intimacy with them and their families. The rage is still there, however, muted. During filming, the husband of one victim maintained that most of the women in the burn unit had inflicted their own injuries. Obaid-Chinoy recalled, “The cameraman was telling me, ‘Please breathe, please breathe.’ ”

Her next major documentary, “A Girl in the River”, released in 2015, investigated the case of a young Punjabi woman whose father shot her in the head and then, with her uncle, dumped her in a river, because she had eloped with a man of whom they did not approve. In the previous three years, there had been more than two thousand honour killings in Pakistan, most of which went unpunished. The woman, whose name was Saba, survived, and began telling her story, talking first to a local news outlet and to the BBC and then to Obaid-Chinoy. “When we got there, she was almost directing us,” Obaid-Chinoy said: “ ‘You should speak to my mother-in-law. At 6pm, my husband is going to come after work. Speak to this doctor—he was my first surgeon.’ She had a lot of strength, and wanted us to get the complete story.” After the attack, Saba’s father and uncle were arrested, and Saba had to decide whether to “forgive” them. (By Pakistani law, honour killings can be absolved if the victim, or her family, forgives the perpetrator.) The film follows Saba as she painfully makes the decision to pardon her relatives, pressured by people all around her: her dad, who is unrepentant; male elders in her neighbourhood, who insist that she has violated the norms of the community; her mother, who offers sympathy but will not defy her husband’s judgment.

At the end of the film, Saba reconciles with her mother, and we learn that she is pregnant; she hopes to have a daughter. For Western viewers, it’s a gratifying, redemptive ending. The screenings to packed audiences at the United Nations headquarters and the Asia Society in New York were usually followed by discussions about women’s rights in Pakistan; an article in London’s Independent said that the film “could help bring an end to honour killings in the country.” Obaid-Chinoy won a second Oscar for the documentary in 2016.

The honour-killing legislation was one of several laws passed on the issue at the urging of other prominent Pakistani activists; none of the laws have had much effect on people’s practices. “She’s one of the few Pakistani women who have a say in what is often an entirely white and entirely Western conversation,” Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani writer, said. “But this trickle-down moral change is never going to happen. So the question becomes, Is your goal to end honour killings, or to participate in the existing global conversation on honour killings? The problem is, at the ground level you’re not changing cultural and social attitudes.” Saba later told reporters that her family were deeply “disturbed” by “A Girl in the River”, and perceived it as another blow to their honour. Last year, Saba left the country with her husband and children.

Obaid-Chinoy argues that her work is meant for both Pakistani and Western audiences. People in Pakistan often do express their support. On a flight from Karachi to Islamabad, several men stopped Obaid-Chinoy and offered praise, and, at the Karachi airport, an airline attendant recognised her and waved her through check-in with a smile. Nevertheless, she told me, “we’re a society that brings people down. We don’t celebrate our heroes, we don’t trust the veneer, we throw stones at them.”