[VoxSpace Life] The Woman In Black Kameez : Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Journalist And Activist

They Live As They Die Every Day: A Woman Activist’s Honest Take On Casual Brutalities In Her Homeland

As grey smoke whirls in the manner of cyclonic cataclysm, seconds later you see children and infants in kaftans, half-naked playing with dirt, as men go on about their daily business- this is Chinoy’s Pakistan, her Terror Children, shot in Karachi. Poverty is not a surprising scene in the south-east Asian countries and in fact splendour is unknown to their inhabitants. Terror Children is a poignant documentary on Pakistan’s children refugees, who had come to Pakistan from its neighbour Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban. Children scattering through the streets, picking garbage before flinging them over their shoulders into their more benevolent bags, children begging for food and some reciting verses. As they run and play with pebbles, remnants of a once beautiful town and neighbourhood, you would know that they are living the deepest fears of any third world country- war, bombings, bloodshed, food scarcity, homelessness, starvation, child labour, and an uncertain death. It would at once remind you of Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness “they asked the poor what it was like to be poor…was like to be homeless”. Sharmeen’s documentaries are however a far cry from mainstream journalism, they are not meant for passive observers and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, one of the 100 most influential people named by Times, knows this well enough. She has admitted that the screening of these films initially needed to be done selectively, where it would stir the most, make people aware the most. Her narration comes alive in the videos she captures. Her documentaries are filmed with a brutal honesty that would make her viewers angry and assertive at the same time.

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A Woman Born Out Of Unpredictable Times

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is not a westerner who is providing a stereotyped and biased view of the third world Pakistan as is often said about her, she has chronicled the two different tableaus of Pakistan. Her childhood is spent in Karachi and she has experienced the depravity from close quarters that she has documented with a lord marshal’s precision. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness won her an Oscar in 2016, opens with horrid details about Pakistan’s honour killing as it slowly shifts to a night sky with edifices jutting out as if in anticipation of some benevolent force that would deposit humanity to a safer place. Sharmeen is a woman who would not allow the gift of her foreign education and genius go to waste. As a member of an affluent family, she has seen the two sides of Pakistan and being an honest storyteller, she felt the urge to document the disparity.

The social status of women in Pakistan currently, is at loggerheads with Jinnah’s vision of a democratic Pakistan that he envisioned decades back. Honour killings and justification of such barbarism are Sharmeen’s topics in the documentary, where family members tend to stoically reason honour killings. Chinoy, who had her degree in Economics and Government from Smith College realizes the dishonour in clasping Pakistan’s women within layers of dominion, the patriarchs stemming seeds of their unquestioning submission since their birth. The horrid reality behind honour killing will send chills down the spine, that is every day being committed in the name of religion in Pakistan. The facts could not have been any accurate as you hear it from the victim (Saba) herself, the survivor of family inflicted savagery beguiled by her members as they swore on the holy Quran themselves. “I am an honourable man” recounts the father of the Saba, one of the two perpetrators of her honour killing apart from her uncle.

Giving Up Is Never A Choice

Sharmeen’s discontent started from her home, from the disrespectful, unfounded, and misogynistic opinions that her relatives or family friends harboured towards the female members of the family. As she started compiling columns for the prestigious Newspaper News her future was more or less lucid before her, a determined activist, the woman who would never shudder an inch before voicing her opinions. She has been bullied and defiled many a time due to her views and opinions, but she refused to appease. Sharmeen’s documentaries, sometimes truncated and at times a beautiful compendium have been screened in many countries across the world, where she has sought to project a different image of Muslim women and their struggles. In her films, she is an uncompromising interrogator often cruelly didactic in her tone. The woman who had received immense strength and solidarity from her family cannot be tamed so easily and is evident as you listen to her brave tales of filming a story from her allies. Her persuasion and discontent have brought her a long way since her amateur days as she fiddled with a camera back in Karachi in 2001 the refugee crisis was at its peak, before filming Terror Children. Whatever followed is a history and between 2002 and 2009 she has documented social issues including atrocities of aboriginal women in Canada and abortion in the Philippines. Reinventing the Taliban was the most daring venture of Chinoy, she takes the issue of Sharia law as her central theme, and she walks past curious, searching eyes “I am probably the only woman around”, you can watch the story at Vimeo.

Her take on the anarchy insinuated by Taliban using religion as its trump card comes into life as Chinoy plunges into the depth of the matter by taking a tour in one of the schools, where children in terrifying numbers are recruited as suicide bombers in Children of the Taliban. The propaganda video shows the indoctrination of some 40-45 boys in white robes with a few masked teachers hired to justify suicide. The indoctrination starts in Madrassas with machine guns and grenades as paraphernalia along with heavy distortion of the holy book. The menace that has wreaked havoc in Pakistan, drug abuse, society and extremism has found voice and life in her documentaries.

Sharmeen- The Warrior Princess

Chinoy, the eloquent orator and persuasive interviewer is the life behind her documentaries, the person who will at once feel you at home, salvaging an honest and personal story by the time she finishes. Some of her documentaries have less redemptive endings, some are most expressive about the price that angels of atonement had to pay. Chinoy, the documenter and the first Pakistani to win an Oscar talks about her “labour of love” Songs of Lahore is about the Jazz of Lahore which was the epitome of music and art, before the arrival of Taliban, for whom music was a source of sin and infidelity, and subsequent odyssey of the band to New York. Here she paints a queer juxtaposition of the two different Pakistan along with its immense possibilities, and the lost possibilities. Chinoy has used her work of art as messenger of the chaos that Pakistan has led itself to be engulfed in, as well as the ways by which it can still redeem itself.

Currently, she has taken the responsibility of a supervisor of SOC Films, named after the initials of her name that primarily focuses on social and investigative context. It is almost reminiscent of her days as an investigative writer for Dawn, you can access some of its bold commentaries and report from your social media profile. Sharmeen, the two time Oscar winner and recipient of six Emmys, is fiercely careful about her legacy that she will leave behind following demise or retirement. She is reluctant to douse the flames that she had once forged with a beginner’s competence of using a camera.