Earlier this year, Pakistan won its first Academy Award for the short documentary “Saving Face,” about women who are victims of acid burnings in the country’s rural regions. The film follows UK-based plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad as he travels back to Pakistan and does pro bono work to improve the appearance of their faces. In the film’s closing scene, Jawad makes a profound statement: ” I’m saving my own face, because I’m part of this society that has this disease.”
I’m from the same society—and parts of it do have a disease. The disease is viewing women as inferior to men; as objects of possession. Though the majority of Pakistanis are not inflicted with this mindset, it becomes fatal to many women, whether they are victims of acid burnings, or, in extreme cases, honour killings. This mistreatment of women in Pakistan was a taboo topic, and though it still may be sensitive, journalists around the world are shedding light on this issue through the form of film media.
For years, Montreal journalist and filmmaker Raymonde Provencher worked on creating a documentary about honour killings that take place in Sweden, Germany, and Canada. She tells me that she was in the editing room when newsrooms first announced the murders of the Shafia girls, and knew then that honour killings were a phenomenon that would continue to take place in Canada unless society was more informed about them. This past Spring, her film “Crimes Without Honour” premiered at the Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival.
One of the opening scenes shows Toronto’s Gerrard Street, cluttered with Indian restaurants and clothing boutiques. Here, viewers meet Aruna Papp, a daughter of a Christian pastor, who suffered in an abusive marriage for 18 years. Papp is a social worker in Toronto, and sees girls and women who are victims of honour abuse. Though there have been 12 reported honour killings in Canada since 1999, she says that honour-based violence is far from rare within South Asian communities here, and that there are many girls in the city who have broken ribs and limbs, and suffer regular abuse in their homes.
Next, viewers are introduced to author Necla Kelek, who was born in Istanbul but immigrated with her family to Germany as a child. She explains that many girls arrive to the country directly from Turkish villages, without knowing a word of German. They are forced into marriages, and live in communities where family honour is given the utmost importance. If they disobey their fathers or husbands, or object to any rules or decisions made about their own lives, they sometimes run away from home and go into hiding in fear of being found, and killed.
In Sweden, viewers hear a male’s perspective—often, it’s not only the female who is forced into upholding family honour. Iraqi Arkan Asad was told he must marry his cousin. At first he refused, but was then treated as an outcast, forbidden to have contact with any of his younger siblings, and blamed for his father’s heart attack. When he finally did agree to the marriage, he says that his father gave him a hug for the first time since he was five years old.
Though Pakistan may have one of the highest rates of honour killings in the world, with more than 1,000 women and girls in Pakistan falling victim to honour killings every year, this type of violence occurs in many Middle Eastern and South Asian societies worldwide, and in countries where laws and constitutions are built upon freedom and equality. The message given in “Crimes Without Honour” is very clear to me: western societies need to intervene to fight the disease of patriarchy that plagues certain communities, by taking steps to assist victims of honour crimes and provide support systems for females who are vulnerable to family violence.
As a member of the Pakistani community, I think this message can be misleading. Patriarchy is not a plague, and honour killings are acts of a small number of individuals, rather than a mainstream custom.
To read more on some of the problems with the Canadian coverage of honour killings, check out my article “In memoriam” in the winter 2013 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, which will be available throughout Canada on most major newsstands just before or shortly after Christmas.