Oscar award-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: “I’m trying to shake Pakistan out of treating women like animals”
A lone 23-year-old Pakistani woman bravely enters a vast courtyard in her rural village. At one end, a semi-circle of grave-faced men, fathers in her local community, await her. The young woman respectfully greets the men, sits, and begins her speech. She is a teacher, and she is articulate, eloquent and confident in her requests. What is she asking for? Simply that the girls in her village be allowed to go to school.
The men listen in silence, but when they open their voices, excuse after excuse tumbles from their mouths. It is a question of our honour, they say. When their daughters leave the house, men leer at them. It is not in our culture, and besides once our daughters are married, they are the responsibility of their in-laws, so what’s the point? The young woman looks weary, embattled; she has heard it all before.
The young woman is Humaira, and her heroic battle to give the girls of rural Pakistan an education forms the story of Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s latest film documentary, Humaira: The Dream Catcher. It has recently been released in collaboration with the Chime for Change campaign, which organised a music concert earlier this month at Twickenham Stadium, featuring the likes of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez.
The project aims to give a platform to the fight for women’s rights around the world, and Obaid-Chinoy has been chosen to sit on the advisory board, alongside the likes of Sarah Brown.
Pakistan is one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman, and the statistics are shameful. As Obaid-Chinoy reveals in her documentary, the literacy rate among Pakistani women is just 26pc, and out of the 32 million girls under the age of 14 in Pakistan, less than 13 million are enrolled in formally recognised schools. Obaid-Chinoy felt compelled to tell Humaira’s tale. “She was making such a change in her community and confronting such important issues and she was barely 23. She was incredibly brave.”
At one part in the film, Humaira calls upon the mothers of her community to fight for their daughters to be allowed to go to school. “Don’t any of you want your daughters to become doctors or teachers?” she asks. “Nothing will change if you blame your husband and don’t take action yourselves.”
“Slowly, progress is being made, and the age of marriage among women has started to rise”, says Obaid-Chinoy. “But many mothers still do not feel like they have rights, nor their daughters.”
Humaira’s own mother was instrumental in ensuring that she went to school. As she gathered her books one day, her father angrily demanded where she was going and hit her, forbidding her from leaving the house. Humaira’s mother collected Humaria’s things and quietly told her to go to school. In response, Humaira’s father broke her mother’s arm.
For Obaid-Chinoy, her mother also played a role in ensuring that she was allowed to continue her education in the United States, something that her father was against. Obaid-Chinoy grew up in Karachi, and was fortunate enough to attend school, yet none of the women in her father’s family had been educated and her father saw no reason for her education to continue.
In the documentary, Humaira’s family relive her decision to go to school, as she calmly serves them tea, her sense of duty belying her fierce ambition. Her brother sobs at the memory of the shame that Humaira caused.
“In communities across this country, shame and honour play such a huge part in the prevention of women’s education,” Obaid-Chinoy tells me, sighing. “But it’s just a guise, and Humaira sees past it. Really these men just use it as an excuse to carry on treating women like animals. It’s not about shame or honour.”
Obaid-Chinoy is no stranger to tackling the gritty, sometimes distressing global injustices that remain a stubborn fixture in many women’s lives around the world. Saving Face, her documentary about acid attacks on Pakistani women, won her an Academy Award, among others. Amid the glamour and glitz of the Academy Award ceremony, filled with elegantly dressed women, Obaid-Chinoy raised awareness of the savage acid attacks that can ruin women’s lives. Her film ensured that the prevalence of the attacks became global front page news.
Saving Face also led to Obaid-Chinoy being named one of TIME Magazine’s one hundred most influential people in the world last year. “I dare anyone to watch this film and not be moved to tears and inspired into action”, said the actress Angelina Jolie, about the film.
Yet the nature of Obaid-Chinoy’s work has taken its toll: “The first time I met a survivor of acid violence, I couldn’t sleep at night. It was shocking, it was appalling. It made me so angry and sad, to see their faces destroyed. And to spend your entire life awaiting surgery, what kind of life is that? But it also made me determined to expose it to the world.”
Chime for Change seems to be the perfect platform for Obaid-Chinoy to help raise awareness of some of the issues she has spent her career trying to expose. “I was immediately attracted to the campaign. I think it will bring issues, such as education in Pakistan to the mainstream, to people who would never usually think about it. The use of pop culture and pop icons means that the issues are being raised in a way I would not be capable of doing by myself.
“I think it will shake people out of their [un]consciousness. In today’s day and age, no one should be living through the things that I have witnessed. I want people to watch my film and think; ‘that could have been my family, my daughter’.”