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Film Exposes 'Honor Killings' in Pakistan
By Emaleah Shackleton
Against My Will
Directed by Ayfer Ergun
Produced by Humanist Broadcasting Foundation
First Run/Icarus Films, 2002
Ayfer Ergun’s documentary is one of an increasing number of films addressing crimes committed against women in the third world. “Against My Will” takes place in Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia or other Islamic country more commonly associated with violence against women. It is noteworthy that this film comes at a time when there are mounting press reports regarding the worsening plight of Afghani women under the Northen Alliance and the Karazi government, despite the vehement assertion that women would enjoy more rights after the collapse of the Taliban regime. This film may surprise some viewers because Pakistan, a nation allied with the United States in the war on terrorism, has not suffered much in the public eye as far as social issues are concerned, leading some to believe that the conditions under which women live there are much better than those in many other Islamic countries. Ergun’s film casts doubt on such assumptions, for we are shown women’s suffering in unmistakable images and words.
“Against My Will” is the terrifying and infuriating story of “honor killings” in Pakistan; women who leave abusive relationships have “disgraced” their families and are murdered to “restore” their family’s honor. The documentary is dedicated to Kubra, the film’s central figure, who is betrayed by her family and shot to death in her sleep.
The documentary takes place for the most part at Dastak, a women’s shelter in Lahore, northern Pakistan. Founded in 1990 by a lawyers’ collective, Dastak houses and provides free legal advice for women seeking a safe haven from abusive relationships. Many of the women living at the shelter were forced to marry men as many as 50 years their senior, only to be emotionally and physically abused.
Perhaps even more horrifying is the alienation of these young women from their families. Despite their cries for help, the families maintain that it would be shameful and disgraceful for their daughters or sisters to leave their violent marriages. At one point, one of the women at Dastak says, “They treat daughters like animals.”
Under the intense emotional pressure of her family, Kubra, who hoped one day to be a beautician, returns home from the shelter. She is promised no one will hurt her, that she is safe, and despite being extremely afraid she tearfully relents. Two weeks later she is shot twice in the head while asleep.
The filmmaker traveled to Kubra’s village and interviewed her family.They were reticent and guarded at first, and then one man, presumably Kubra’s father, exclaimed, “A woman who runs to a shelter had something to hide. What she told you is totally different from what really happened.” According to him, these women do not tell the truth; they dishonor their family for the sake of their own pleasure.
What these women are escaping is far worse than the “arguments” Kubra’s father presumed led to her flight. In addition to frequent beatings, some women are disfigured, burned. Razia, a ghost-like woman shrouded in scarves (though most women remove their headscarves inside the shelter) and hidden behind dark glasses, was locked in a room which her husband and mother-in-law sprayed with kerosene and incinerated.
As Razia shares her atrocious tale with the filmmaker, a counselor shows her a mirror and tells her that there is nothing wrong with her face, that once she accepts her appearance, others will as well. Razia is inconsolable; her scarred, disfigured face is a physical expression of her suffering, and the depth of her pain is palpable. Like Razia, many women living in Dastak share their suffering with the empathetic counselors and the filmmaker. They often seem, despite everything they have been through, cheerful and warm, cooking together, sewing in the sun outside, going through the wavelike movements of prayer, sharing their small beds and sad stories.
A young woman named Anita is visited by her mother; she is one of the few women (if not the only woman) in the film to have the support of at least one family member. Her mother assures her that her father will not kill her, that she should be safe since she has no brothers and “brothers are the most dangerous.” She admits the village is putting pressure on her father to kill her, and although he has said he will not, the daughter adds, “he won’t stop my husband doing it, it’s the same thing.” Anita’s husband even wants her mother to help him shoot his wife.
Despite their conciliatory hugs and affectionate goodbye, Anita states at the end of the film, candidly and with eerie honesty, that she “would never dream of trusting [her] family.”
The film does an excellent job of conveying the horror and humanity of the lives of these women. They seem smart, articulate, and remarkably composed despite the fact that they live in fear, with the scars of their abuse and the complete alienation of their parents, siblings, extended family, and their own children. Their strength and bravery is remarkable.
While many know that women in Pakistan do not fare much better than in other Islamic countries, the film does not provide a contextual background about women’s issues in Pakistan. This would have been useful, especially since Pakistan is one of two or three countries once headed by a woman prime minister, Benazir ben Bhutto.
A number of NGOs are working to end the abuse of women in Pakistan. Among these, the Pakistan Human Rights Organization addresses thousands of cases of honor killings every year. The film shows a press conference held by the organization to increase domestic and international awareness of the crimes. “They run away because of the violence….and because they are married off against their will. Kubra’s case is just one example of the honor killings that have occurred and will occur,” said a spokeswoman at the conference. According to the 2000 Human Rights Commission report, 227 women were killed “in the name of honor” that year. Mehboob Ahmad Khan, speaker at the commission, tells the story of Kubra’s murder and repeats the comments of the victim’s family: “She defiled our honor, and that was unacceptable.”
The combination of footage from the shelter, the legal office and scenes and interviews from Kubra’s village and family make “Against My Will” a very powerful statement against “honor killings.” The filmmaker does an excellent job of using the medium to facilitate and give voice to the message without overpowering it with her own point of view; such treatment gives the film a quality that is outspoken and poignant.
The film begins and ends at a grave – possibly Kubra’s – symbolic of the ultimate finality of this tradition, as well as the only release from suffering many of these Pakistani women may find.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)
Copyright (c) 2003 by Al Jadid