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Documentary about Pakistan Honor Killings called A Girl in the River

As a writer, I search for conflict in all of my stories. If there is no conflict and the choices for the protagonist are clear, the story is not that interesting. The story instead becomes a sort of “Day in the Life” and we all know the final destination. Stories with conflict make us think.


The same logic applies to legal cases. If the choices are clear, then the case is an easy one to settle. In a similar vein, there is seldom just one side to a story. I often find there are more than two and quite often, the truth lies somewhere in between. Although we are taught to be zealous advocates, if we cannot see the point of view of the other side, then we will be handicapped in prosecuting our cases.  And if our clients can see the other side’s point of view, then we may be able to reach a compromise and settle the case.


I have long been interested in the subjects of honor killings and genital mutilation. (I know, I know, I must be fun to be around.) I recently watched a documentary about honor killings in Pakistan entitled, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”  This film won an Academy Award in 2016 for Best Documentary, Short Subject.  The director is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and I encourage you to seek it out.  I watched it on HBO NOW.


The documentary follows Saba, 19 years, who survived an honor killing attempt by her father and uncle. For years she had been promised in marriage to a young man, but the uncle intervened and claimed the young man’s family was of lower status and too poor. He said Saba should be married to his brother-in-law. Saba took matters into her own hands and asked her suitor’s family to arrange their marriage. Once she was married, the father and uncle took her home, promising on the Koran that they would not harm her. Instead, they shot her in the face and hand and left her to die in the river.


The father and uncle were to be prosecuted for their crimes, but forgiveness by the victim would lead to an acquittal and free them. This all occurred in a small neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else. The father and uncle believed themselves to be well respected in the community as honorable men, but the father lost that respect because he had a daughter he could not control. His belief was that he gave birth to her and raised her; therefore, he could decide who she was to marry. Because he could not control her, the family lost respect and was ostracized by the villagers. The young man’s family suffered the same fate because they took her in. That loss of respect resulted in being shut out of community affairs and, if the father went to jail, the family would suffer as he was the sole breadwinner.


The elders of the village intervened, even choosing a new attorney for Saba. In her heart, she did not forgive her father, but could see the damage done to two families and she “forgave” her father. That meant his release. At the time the documentary was filmed, her mother was the only natural relative who was still talking to her. Saba was pregnant and hoped for a girl. Her hope for her future daughter was that she would be able to stand up to others. While the film sheds light on the point of view of those other than Saba, it seems that the justification for honor killings is not so much the loss of respect, but more importantly, the view that women are second class citizens whose desires and dreams are secondary to those the father who raised them and provided a home for them. More than 1,000 women in Pakistan suffer honor killings every year.