The price of complacency

A Girl in The River uses simple cinematic techniques to convey a ghastly reality

Aisha Sarwari March 30, 2016
The writer is a freelance writer based in Islamabad. She blogs at She can be followed on Twitter @AishaFsarwari

It is jarring to watch A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, the Oscar-winning Pakistani documentary. One certainly cannot do it in the shared company of popcorn and a cola. You need a truckload of shame and oxygen to help you survive when you hyperventilate. As someone who prides herself as a feminist, it felt like a personal blow and officially reduced my anti-patriarchy howling to a whimper. Our women-killing culture and the reality of the philosophy that justifies it, is so acute compared to the shouts and murmurs — which we use to console ourselves into believing are making a difference. You can’t fight a deadly virus with Joshanda.

The story of Saba, the 19-year-old young woman who got shot in the face by her father and uncle and thereafter dumped in the river to die, is one that immortalises the fact that we are the problem. The menace is not just that we are honour-crazed and that women’s behaviour is tied to the status of a man in society, but that we have continually denied that there is a problem with that equation.

Nothing defines this more clearly than Saba’s survival after the river ordeal. Scarred and bloodied in the eye, she somehow survived a drowning and came out intact with her spirit. She talked of justice, she talked of vengeance and fairness and she talked of taking the crime to the courts. Only to be sent back to eat her words. Despite police officials and lawyers supporting her bravery, the community elders, who are essentially the abattoirs of all truth and vitality, ended up gnawing at her enough that she did what all women do — forgive.

I think of many women survivors’ walk of shame from the court, the day they record their statement of forgiveness to protect their murderers. That is not their walk to walk, that is the walk perpetrators of violence should carry out. One foot after the other, thinking of the spirit they broke, the flesh they tore and the life they attempted to barter for their fake honour — all of which don’t deserve forgiveness. These men however, walk free from the jail cells, chests out and spring in their step. The world will greet them as if they have pleased the gods.

What a twisted world Saba’s Gujranwala is.

But wait, that is a microcosm of Pakistan. The council of religious leaders have given the Punjab government a deadline to do away with a women’s protection law that punishes men like Saba’s father and uncle with slightly more vengeance. That is precisely what women need — daggers, claws and fangs. Certainly not forgiveness.

Women don’t forgive men because it is in their nature, but because they fear men. They fear men because men can hurt them and get away with it. Men don’t fear men because they can’t get away with hurting them. Pakistan needs to awaken to the fact that we need to place women at par with men, so that for starters, our rivers have fewer women drowned in them.

The blight of honour killing extends far beyond Gujranwala, it permeates the four walls of most homes in the country. Honour culture is on a spectrum that ranges from denying women financial and educational empowerment, to shooting them in the face. There is a lot of pain and torture in between. Women commit suicide, they live with mental ailments and are mostly vertical corpses. Sadly, our culture of complacency, both from the government and from the religious elite, celebrate the dead or near-dead women.

A Girl in The River uses simple cinematic techniques to convey a ghastly reality. The most important part of it is that you don’t feel like you are watching a film but that you have peeked into the homes that Saba lives in and is cast away from and you scrimmage through the agrarian fields through which Saba was dragged to the river. It is sometimes the simplest film techniques that are hardest to pull off.

This Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy film, yes, puts a mirror to our face and makes us gag, but it also tells us that the place to start is not with women, but with transforming the justice system from priding itself in being a mere post office, into being a sanctuary of the marginalised in its truest sense. We don’t need post offices. We need a world where our anger is allowed measured and befitting expression.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st,  2016.

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Naveed | 8 years ago | Reply Men can't be just asked to stop killing a criminal legal system where the onus is on the aggrieved party to provide evidence rather than the state finding evidence things will not change easily.women's right of inheritance has to be legally acknowledged,their right to personal choice regarding marriage be given protection,education of girls made stat duty only then can things start changing rather than making movies in English to get Oscars or running NGO's
Parvez | 8 years ago | Reply The ET site is not functioning properly for quite some time.....but I'll give it a try. Its good that you have written on this subject because only the power of the pen will bring down the wall that patriarchy has built over the centuries.
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