#RepresentAsian with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

This interview aptly took place in Asia House in London, where the legendary activist film maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy was screening a preview of her new documentary. Unveiling the dark lid of opium and heroin abuse by young men in Pakistan.

(Background on SOC:  Sharmeen is an Academy Award and an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. Her most recent work includes documentary features Song of Lahore and A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers. In the past 15 years, she has made over a dozen multi award winning films in over 10 countries around the world. Her films include Saving Face, Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret and Pakistan’s Taliban Generation. In 2012, Time Magazine included Sharmeen in their annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Sharmeen previously won Pakistan’s first Academy Award for her documentary Saving Face at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in 2012. She is one of only eleven female directors who have ever won an Oscar for a non-fiction film.Sharmeen won the 2016 Oscar for A Girl in the River)

NM: Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this. So, Two Oscar wins, 6 Emmy’s, an activist, a staunch feminist, film maker, journalist, whistleblower, Time magazines 100 most influential people,  I mean, you really have done it all….which do you most identify with?

SOC:  That’s quite a list when you put it like that. I mean, you know as women, we simply cannot be defined by just one facet. From an early age we are taught to fit a number of demanding and differing roles, and that is something that becomes engrained in our make up. So yes, I am all of those above, but more than that and will continue to be.

NM: You mention from an early age you had to fit a number of roles. What do you mean by that? What was it like growing up in Pakistan as a young woman?

SOC: I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. I was one of 6 siblings, so we were a big family. My parents in their quest for having the fated boy continued having children, so in the end they had 5 daughters and a son (finally). I felt really strongly about inequality from an early age, and I was exposed to it and aware of it, probably more so than my counter peers at that age. I recall being in the car on my way to school and wondering why there were children begging on the streets? Or wondering why boys were allowed the freedom to do what they liked but girls had to be held to a different standard. It was a number of aggressions, both micro and larger ones, that irked me on a deeper level. It was the injustice of it all that propelled me to write out about this.

NM: I read somewhere, that you wrote your first article when you were 15! How did that happen?

SOC: Hahaha, yes I did. We had a famous newspaper called Dawn, akin to your Times. This is long before the time of internet and email. So after school I would write these pieces after doing my homework, and post them to the newspaper office under a pseudonym. Of course, I couldn’t let them know I was a 15 year old school girl! They would never take me seriously! I actually went undercover at a few events, and exposed a few high ranking officials in the newspaper. I got a lot of heat for that, and shamed for it too, but, I think deep down I always knew I wanted to more than just get an education and get married. There’s so much injustice, and I knew I had to do something about it and call it out.

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

NM: What do you mean that you got “shamed”?

SOC: Well, after I blew the whistle on these high profile individuals in the newspaper, I got a lot of heat for it. For example, when I came back from school, I noticed someone had written on my house gates, just despicable, derogatory, disgusting messages. I knew in my heart, that because I was a female, a girl, a young woman, that I was subjected to a different standard. The notion of shame is so complex in Pakistan, and its frustrating that the parameters only apply to women. Society and culture in Pakistan was not supportive about women who ask difficult or awkward questions. Despite my film success on the international stage, I still get so much heat back home, for bringing “shame” on Pakistan, for pandering negative Western attitudes towards Pakistan post 9/11. Which is ridiculous, instead of fixing these issues, it’s so much easier to blame me and find a scapegoat. Instead of looking at my films as taint on Pakistan’s reputation, the government should take heed and actually FIX the problems.  

NM: How did that energy and drive lead you to film and documentary making? What was that journey like? What was your first film?

SOC: Film making was a total fluke! I know, I know, people are always surprised to hear that! I studied Politics and Economics at Stanford University. I didn’t know the first thing about film making, these were days of Yahoo, I typed in “video journalism” and decided to go for it. I knew I wanted to make a story about Afghan refugee children living in the streets of Karachi. I sent the proposal to about 80 different organisations, and finally the New York Times Television accepted it, so we made the film.

NM: Being a woman in an overtly patriarchal and unabashed female shaming society, what were your biggest challenges in film making? How did you overcome them?

SOC: You know, my answer to that is, if the door doesn’t open for you, it’s because you haven’t kicked the door hard enough! I didn’t let my gender limit me, in fact, being a female film maker, meant that I had access to places and to stories, that as a man, would not have been possible. To be able to find common ground with the subject came from earning their trust. As a woman, I could relate more to my subjects than perhaps they would realise. As a woman, regardless of social status, wealth or education, you are immediately limited, just by default of not being a man. So I really related to their struggle and I think having that dialogue, that common understanding is actually what made my films a success. I am a woman, I am successful, and I am not afraid to speak my mind. That makes men uncomfortable. That makes men and actually women, want to silence me, but the more they want to do, the more I know I am doing the right thing and the more I will do it. I have made over 25 films, and all of them addressed tough issues, but my thing is, if my films make you uncomfortable, GOOD. Don’t shoot the messenger.

NM: In the wake of “Naya Pakistan” What do you think needs to be changed? What do you want to see happen in Pakistan society?

SOC: That’s simple. I want to see more women having a voice, more female empowerment, more encouragement of women and young girls to be able to do what they want to do. Although we are seeing more and more women pursuing education, whether its in the arts, business, politics or law, but, they still face the challenges of a deeply patriarchal society. Where things like marriage is the ultimate measure of success. If you come from a poorer background, that freedom is limited or non existent. So what I want to see is a modernisation of male attitude, to give women the freedom the make the choices they want. I want to see families and parents to encourage their daughters, sisters, wives to pursue whatever career they want. Look, it’s not going to be easy, and it wont occur overnight, but we need to start somewhere. I have high hopes for Pakistan and for all women. It’s not just a Naya Pakistan, I think we are entering a Naya Age for women world wide.