Traitor: A Study in Pakistan’s Cognitive Dissonance

Renowned filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy added another Oscar to her CV on February 28th for her documentary A Girl in the River, which highlights the issue of rampant honor killings in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis, including myself, see this as an important step towards breaking down the taboos surrounding violence against women. According to multiple sources, including Pakistan’s Aurat Foundation, 1000 women are murdered annually by way of honor killings in Pakistan; this number is not inclusive of men who are killed (often in tandem with whatever dishonor is incurred by the woman or girl) or killings that go unreported, as the Pakistani government does not compile national statistics.

Honor killings are often wrongly conflated with Islamic practices, along with many other practices in Pakistan, including isolated instances of female genital mutilation and child marriages. It is because of this perception that honor killings occur not just in rural areas, but also in large cities like Lahore, where a woman was murdered in front of the high court after being attacked with bricks by her male relatives.

The dishonor in question is often a matter of marriage and autonomy. While much of Pakistan has progressed beyond traditional notions of marriage (arranged marriages are still part of the norm, albeit with the consent of all parties – an interesting topic of discussion for a different time), there is still a large swath of the population that believes a woman does not have a choice in her marriage. As such, most honor killings take place when a woman is perceived as making her own decisions regarding marriage or is perceived as having had an extramarital relationship. In many cases, these accusations are based on suspicion and hearsay — but that hearsay is enough on its own to constitute dishonor upon a family.

Honor killings are a necessarily gendered problem: they subsist on the idea that women are subject to the whims of their male relatives and the deep-seated belief that a family’s honor begins and ends with women — particularly the daughter. The distinction between domestic violence or intimate partner homicide and honor killings is, as Rafia Asim of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan describes it, “the element of honor or supposed honor that is felt by the male members of the family of a woman. In honor crimes, there will always be a woman in the equation.”

It is with this background in mind that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s film deserved its Oscar win. Bringing such an important issue to the international frontier forces action; certainly, the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced in February that he would take serious measures to counter the prevalence of honor killings in Pakistan. Whether or not these measures come into fruition remains to be seen, but there is definitely going to be backlash as can already be witnessed in response to the Senate of the province of Punjab unanimously passing the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015.

Cultural mindsets, however, need to change in more regards than one. In comments made online regarding honor killings and the Oscars, there exists a lot of sentiment against Obaid-Chinoy reminiscent of the backlash received by international sweetheart Malala Yousafzai when she — as a matter of choice or not — took her activism abroad.

There seems to be a common belief that Pakistan’s dirty laundry cannot be aired outside our borders for fear that it will further mar the country’s image around the world. Many comments on articles posted on Dawn’s Facebook page (Dawn being the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in Pakistan) urge Pakistan to “disown” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, claiming she tarnishes the image of Pakistan and that the Academy’s jury is biased against Muslim countries, wishing to portray them as singular practitioners of barbarism.

While that last claim certainly has merit in an Academy that has historically glorified Orientalist, racist, war-mongering, scapegoating flicks and performances, it is unfair to lay blame on a woman who wants to sow positive change in Pakistan — Obaid-Chinoy’s two Oscars should not be the realm for the very warranted skirmish over Orientalism. That Obaid-Chinoy’s activism has transcended borders is a necessary consequence of her medium; a medium that is as legitimate as any when it comes to inspiring social change.

Never has Obaid-Chinoy eschewed her Pakistaniat. She graced the red carpet in Pakistani garb from head-to-toe. Her speech spoke of the resilience of Pakistan and Pakistani women. She even praised the Prime Minister of Pakistan while millions of viewers were watching — and yet it is her Oscar that is the scandal?

Malala Yousefzai continues to suffer the same treatment Obaid-Chinoy is suffering now. While much of the country holds her in high esteem and adoration, many individuals see Malala as a Western agent strategically elevated to make Pakistan look bad. She’s considered a traitor for having had the audacity to move abroad — despite a literal bullet to the head, continued death threats from the Taliban, and possible trauma. Even our sole Nobel Laureate was stricken from the figurative family tree because he wasn’t the right kind of Pakistan to represent us abroad. How could Pakistan possibly claim a Nobel Laureate if he a) isn’t Sunni and b) is, of all things, of the Ahmadiyya community (a marginalized community I have previously written about).  

How is it that we, as a country, wish to project a positive image of ourselves internationally when we work hard to alienate and “disown” those of us that aim to do just that? The aforementioned Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam was alienated so cruelly that he eventually left Pakistan and died in the United Kingdom. He predicted the God Particle. A few years ago, the God Particle was discovered.

Dr. Abdus Salam suffered the wrath of a country so wrapped up in its own inferiority complex that it practically destroyed the memory of a great man. We cannot let this inferiority complex infect our relationships with our great people again. This heart-breaking piece in Dawn imagines what correspondence from Dr. Salam to Malala would look like:

You are the new ‘traitor.’

You are presented with the dire challenge of bringing peace and pride to a country, that doesn’t want your gift.

Like a mother of a particularly rebellious child, you must find a way to love them nonetheless. Eventually, I pray, they will understand.

Obaid-Chinoy cannot, must not, be turned into a traitor; her story cannot end like Dr. Salam’s did.

We must face our faults, as myriad and winding as they are, with bravery and honesty if we are to reach the potential only a country with our resilience has.

Obaid-Chinoy said it best herself in an interview with Christiane Amanpour: “I think it’s very important to have these difficult conversations. We aren’t going to make the country a better place if we keep glorifying the good things about it. We must talk about issues that confront Pakistan ─ and there are many issues that confront the country.”

As a country, Pakistan has many things to be proud of, and we have much to be hopeful about. But our hope must leave room for the dirty secrets, the skeletons in the closet and the taboos that need to be outed, thrown into harsh relief, and loudly deconstructed if we are to progress as a society. People like Obaid-Chinoy and Malala Yousefzai are gems in a climate of foggy morality because they have the courage, the resilience, and the much-needed stubbornness to inspire top-down policy and influence grassroots social change.

It all starts with leaving room for the narrative.

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