Pakistani Emmy-nominated film puts spotlight on female pioneers

Freedom Fighters, a documentary by two-time Oscar winning filmmaker, tackles the issue of gender equality.

Producer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy arrives at the ninth annual Women In Film Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party in Los Angeles, California February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
The film 'Freedom Fighters' tells the stories of three women heroes fighting for gender equality in Pakistan [File: Patrick T Fallon/Reuters]

A Pakistani policewoman battling rising levels of violence against women in her country is one of three women featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary that filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy hopes will inspire other women.

Obaid-Chinoy, winner of two Oscars and seven Emmys, said Freedom Fighters tells the stories of elite police officer Saima Sharif, former child bride Tabassum Adnan, and Syed Ghulam Fatima, an activist who took on the brick industry.

Known for films that highlight gender inequality, Obaid-Chinoy said all three women’s lives were shaped by their own experiences, which drove them to push for change, despite facing threats along the way.

“We need leaders like these three, emerging from the grassroots, from the neighbourhood and communities they come from and work in, and who are invested in them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Every year thousands of women in Pakistan face some form of violence, ranging from acid attacks to sexual assault, kidnapping, rape or murder, often in the name of “honour”.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy from the Oscar-nominated documentary short subject
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the winner of two Oscars and seven Emmys [File: Danny Moloshok/Reuters]

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog, stated in its 2019 annual report that “despite legislation enacted to protect and promote women’s rights in recent years, violence against women has escalated”.

Obaid-Chinoy, who was the first Pakistani to win an Academy Award with her 2012 film Saving Face, inspired by the life of acid-attack victim Fakhra Younus, said Freedom Fighters continued her focus on resilient Pakistani women.

She also won an Oscar in 2016 for her documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, about a so-called honour killing in Pakistan that prompted then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to declare his commitment to eliminate such murders.

Freedom Fighters was this month named to the shortlist for the 2020 Emmys; the winners will be announced on September 21.

Childhood experiences

“It is important for girls to be inspired. Such films open their minds to the multitude of possibilities there are,” said Obaid-Chinoy.

The film’s co-producer, Maheen Sadiq, agreed.

“We can all take inspiration from these powerful women who have braved their past and are now standing up for change, shaping not just their own futures, but the futures of generations to come,” Sadiq told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Syeda Ghulam Fatima, founder of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front who campaigns for the rights of bonded labourers, said her work stemmed from her childhood when she noticed the extreme living conditions that brick kiln workers faced.

“I was in Grade 8 and was used to seeing brick kiln workers coming from the periphery, to seek help from my trade unionist father,” Fatima, 65, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the eastern city of Lahore in a phone interview.

“They would be in tatters and half-starved, and my father would ask us to provide meals and clothes for them.

“I would find it very painful and failed to understand why no one listened to their grievances. I later found out it’s a modern form of slavery and existed in agriculture as well.”

Fatima estimates there are about 4.5 million people engaged in making bricks in Pakistan of whom about 60 percent are women who are routinely harassed.

“Things are much better now than when I began work 40 years ago, but rape and sexual abuse continues,” she said.

Obaid-Chinoy also tells the story of Adnan, who escaped 20 years of domestic abuse after being married off as a child and now lobbies powerful men in the community to stop this abuse.

Pakistan has the sixth-highest rate of child marriage in the world, according to UNICEF, with 21 percent of girls married before 18.

The third woman in the film, Sharif, was accepted into the Pakistan Elite Force, refusing to let the violence and discrimination she faced on the job deter her from ensuring women play a greater role in her conservative country.

Obaid-Chinoy said one of the main challenges was ensuring the filming did not put the women at risk.

“Both Fatima and Tabassum have always been at the receiving end of threats for taking on the superstructures,” she said.

Source: Reuters