There are moments when humanity and compassion are lost among cultural reason and logic. Humanity and compassion are like stones thrown among other stones, piling up and disregarded as rubble or debris.
Saba, the focus of the Oscar-winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price Of Forgiveness, is one of these stones. Despite its poetic, even romantic title, this film is a straight-talking story about a Pakistani woman’s punishment for finding love.
Saba falls for a man named Qaiser. Saba’s father and uncle do not approve of this match because Qaiser is from a poorer family. Nevertheless, Saba runs away and marries him. Saba’s father and uncle are deeply angered that Saba has acted against their wishes. Despite swearing on the Quran that they forgive her and that they will return her home safely, Saba’s father drives her to a set of trees, pulls out a pistol, puts it to his daughter’s head and pulls the trigger. In an attempt to hide Saba’s body, they put her in a bag and throw her in a river.
A Girl in the River opens with titles explaining that 1,000 women are murdered by male relatives every year in Pakistan.
The film expresses that these victims are believed to have dishonored their families. The patriarch of the family will “sacrifice” the daughter or wife who has brought shame upon the family. Shame can include being a rape victim, getting a divorce, remarrying or marrying someone without the family’s approval – which was the case for Saba.
As an American, I found the most astonishing moment of the film came during an interview with Saba’s father and uncle while they are imprisoned for the attempted murder of their daughter. Her uncle Muhammad affirms that Saba’s father Maqsood was not only absolutely correct in his actions, but that it was his duty to kill his daughter. “Everything is about respect.”
When Saba’s father Maqsood speaks, it is as if he is giving a sermon. “Whatever we did, we were obliged to do it. She took away our honor… This was unlawful of her.” He uses a metaphor of comparing his daughter to a drop of piss in a gallon of milk. The drop ruins the whole gallon of milk. The metaphor perfectly articulates his cultural and family position. Law is not written. It is his duty to keep the women in his family in line with community law.
A Girl in the River portrays that honor and respect are the most valuable trade assets. Both are built upon maintaining control of daughters and wives. As fathers and brothers are the breadwinners, they maintain power. By keeping women at home, they are confined. The milk spoils when women are unleashed to become more than child bearers and caregivers and are allowed to make autonomous decisions such as who they will marry.
When Saba’s father told his wife he would kill Saba, he says she could do nothing but cry. “For I am her husband, and she is just my wife.” Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Saving Face, Song of Lahore) tries to reason with him asking, where in the Quran does it permit murder? And he replies that it isn’t written, but where does it say his daughter can run away with a stranger?
It’s an incredibly stirring scene. Maqsood is of sound mind and is rational in his belief. There is humanity in his eyes while speaking of the inhumane. I’ve never questioned my consciousness relative to mankind with such sincerity until I witnessed Maqsood’s argument for his actions.
Pakistani Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy believes in the power of film to change culture. She had an incredibly different upbringing to Saba and was supported by her family. Her parents had five girls and one boy, and her father called them all “his sons.” Obaid-Chinoy and her sisters believed that they were equal to men and could accomplish their heart’s desire. Obaid-Chinoy went to American schools Smith College and Stanford for journalism and was the first to go to school abroad in her family.
Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani woman to win two Academy Awards with this short Documentary. Her first was for Saving Face, about acid attacks in Pakistan. For her second win, she walked onto the stage overflowing with pride and confidence. “This is what happens when determined women get together.” She ended her speech by stating that after seeing the film, the Prime Minister agreed to take steps in removing “forgiveness” acquittals from law. This would remove the “honor” from the act and therefore be ruled as a killing.
As a Black American, I am inspired.
I’m inspired to be vigilant. I’m inspired to stand up unwaveringly for what is right and what is in my heart. I’m inspired by Sharmeen Obaid-Shinoy. She was brave to speak openly of such a contentious issue to her country that is influenced by the Quran and to the men who manipulate its written words in their favor. Obaid-Shinoy did this as a woman, about women, in Pakistan.
I am inspired by Saba.
A Girl in the River gives Saba a voice. After escaping the ultimate consequence of breaching her family’s honor, she lives to tell her story. “Qaiser and I will have a baby soon. I hope it’s a girl so that she can be brave. I hope she can stand up for herself. I hope she can do good things and be educated. I hope she can work if she wants to. She should do whatever her heart desires.”