When women are under threat from their own families, cultural change is needed. Multimedia artist Alina Chaudry says art and media are an important part of this change.
Alina Chaudry | Pakistan
While exploring my own empowerment I became an activist. Today I work for Aurat Foundation, which has been working for decades on the issues of ‘honor killings’ and gender equality in my country. I am a core member of Rastay, a platform of Pakistani artists founded by Faiza Khan, using performance, film, and visual art to create dialogue on important issues facing our society. In 2014 we held an art exhibition about honor killing. It is an issue close to my heart.
It is also an issue that has captured the attention of the whole world this year when Pakistani female director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won an Academy Award for her documentary Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Sharmeen’s film tells the story of Saba, a survivor of an honor killing attack whose father and uncle tried to kill her for marrying a man of her choice.
Not all women in Pakistan are at risk of honor killing, but stories like Saba’s do exist. Aurat Foundation estimates that 1,000 women a year are killed in Pakistan in so-called honor crimes. Worldwide, 5,000 women a year are victims of honor killings, according to United Nations data from 2000. And the BBC has reported estimates as high as 20,000 women killed each year.
It’s not about honor
The root cause of honor killings lies in the battle for social and economic survival. It is not religion, nor our laws, that hold women back. It is our patriarchal culture. The picture of an ideal woman is framed with obedience, compromise, flexibility, and sacrifice. We are brought up to adopt these traits from childhood.
My culture is not all negative though. As a woman I have always felt appreciated, respected, protected, cared for, and loved. I was able to pursue education freely. Historically, women were not responsible for earning bread and our society considered women as an asset. The problem is when “assets” begin making decisions on their own; it challenges this social structure.
In our society, reputation is important. When someone’s reputation is threatened, they may target their own family members for bringing shame on the family. Women are soft targets who can easily be blamed for bringing dishonor to the family. Excuses can include: refusal of an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, allegations and rumors about a family member, being a victim of rape (which carries stigma), having a boyfriend outside the community, and homosexuality. But these are only excuses.
In many cases, the killings of women are actually not for the sake of so-called honor but to secure the inheritance or land within the native family. The psychological insecurity of men is also part of the problem. If a man thinks he is responsible for designing the fate of his sister, daughter, or wife, what happens when she decides to step out on her own? His masculinity is challenged. It’s the society that is pointing fingers at him. What kind of man are you that you cannot even take care of your own woman? She is the smallest thing, and you are not able to take care of her.
Things are changing now. In the media, powerful women are now appreciated. But they are associated with the elite class. For most women, it is still considered a rebellion to talk about her rights, to disturb the soft, obedient picture of femininity.
Laws are just the beginning
A fews days before Girl in the River was awarded an Oscar, the film was screened at a closed gathering at the Prime Minister’s house in Pakistan. Following the screening, Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif committed to introducing legislation to stop honor killing. I agree with the film’s director, Sharmeen, who said, “The most hopeful thing about this film is that it started a national discourse in Pakistan about honour killings—something we desperately needed to have."
The government of Pakistan passed the first laws banning honor killings in 2004. Before then, any kind of domestic violence was considered a private matter of the family and was excused in the name of misinterpreted religious laws. It was hardly reported and addressed.
While a step in the right direction, the legislation that passed was weak. It did little to stop honor killings. A decade later, in 2014, new legislation was introduced. The Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill was passed by the Senate and has been pending in the National Assembly since March 2015.
These stronger laws, if enacted, will not be enough on their own to stop honor killings without an accompanying cultural shift. The community is often complicit and protects the perpetrators of honor crimes. And people are afraid to come forward. Dawn has reported an alarming statistic from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP): In nearly half of honor killings cases, the crime is not even registered.
The issue will be tackled only if all the stakeholders and community work together. The police should hold a meeting with communities every week to discuss communal issues and different laws. Police need to implement a standardized format for registering crimes that includes questions specifically relating to honor killings, domestic violence, and all other forms of violence against women. The state also needs to assure protection for the survivor in accessing the court and police. Otherwise, no cases will be registered and no one will stand up further for her rights. More shelter homes are needed for both women and men.
Media plays an important role, and not just to report the latest honor killing, but also to provide details about the law and its implications. We need to educate children especially, but also adults, about honor killings. Unfortunately, this shameful act is wrapped in religious excuses. The media need to make people aware that killing family members is not supported by Islam.
Art that speaks to us
Artists and poets played an important role in gaining Pakistan’s independence in 1947. If you study the history of any revolution, it is coming from artists; it is coming from writers. It’s important for every society that their artists should be alive to what is happening around them. If they stop, it is the signal of a dead society.
Films like Girl In the River can bring messages to the masses in a form they can relate to. A survivor telling his or her own story transmits courage and an emotional connection. Girl In the River isn’t the first award-winning documentary on the topic. License to Kill by BBC, and Banaz: A Love Story by Deeyah Khan are also great films. Saeed Mangi, a Pakistani visual artist, used animation to tell his village’s story and condemn honor killing.
But the question remains: Despite the promotion of films and the passing of bills, why haven’t honor killing rates decreased?
Oscar awards aren’t enough. Films should be accessible to the common public for advocacy. Screenings should be arranged at the grassroots level and not just in intellectual circles and award competitions. I am looking forward to watching Girl In the River but it hasn’t become available yet where I live.
International advocacy is tilted towards politically hot issues for the Western world, like religious fundamentalism and the war against terrorism. It often reinforces a sympathetic image of brown women in underdeveloped countries. In Pakistan, funding gets justified for women at risk of honor killings, but not for women who happen to be near target zones for drones. Those of us who live these realities need to be at the center of the advocacy.
If the root cause for honor killings is our culture, we need to change our culture. Media and art can be a part of that.
As a multimedia artist, art is an important part of everything I do. This month, I helped organize an International Women’s Day event that brought artists together for an inspiring day that included a mime performance by university students, an exhibition from a well-known female photographer, and music. There is so much that is beautiful and positive in my country. Whenever there is a step in the right direction, it should be appreciated and the whole society should work towards it.
Asking questions as I grew up is what made me an activist. With art, you leave a question mark among the audience. This is the hard reality of the world, but what can you do? What’s your responsibility?