Pakistan: Film Gives Women Survivors A New Take on Life


"The first film I make when I go back to my village will be about unequal wages women peasants get compared to their male counterparts," says Haseena Mallah, an unlettered farmhand in her 40s. A mother of five, Mallah is one of nine women who attended a two-week filmmaking workshop from Jul. 14–26 in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, some 143 kilometres from her village near Hyderabad. And at the premiere of the engaging 10-minute film they made, entitled ‘Half Face’, these women showed that one does not always have to be technologically savvy – or even literate – to make a documentary. 

"They may not have been given the chance to learn to read and write, but they realised they could still make a film. It is important for them to realise, as well as the wider community, the difference between intelligence and education," says Danielle Spencer, trainer at the workshop that was organised by Women’s International Shared Experience (WISE) and funded by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). 

The women had come from Hyderabad and as far as Rahimyar Khan, a city 634 km from Karachi. Half of the group were completely unschooled, a few had studied up to grade four, and none had used a computer before. 

Free to make a film on any topic, the women had decided – entirely by themselves – to work on a theme close to their hearts: domestic violence. 

While the nine women had never met before, they had one thing in common – each had experienced some form of sexual, physical or mental abuse at some point in their lives. 

It not so much the physical injuries, explains Spencer, but the mental scars that shatter the confidence of domestic abuse survivors. The process of learning film-making restores "the ability to view ourselves as worthy of anything," says the 26-year-old trainer, who also suffered from domestic violence. 

The whole experience "seems almost unreal", recalls Javeria Ali, 19, who has never stayed away from home for even one night. This time, Ali managed to cajole her husband to let her stay away from home for two weeks, and put her two-year old son in the care of her mother. 

"I still can’t believe it. Let alone holding a camera, I’d never even touched a computer," Ali says. "It’s brought such a change in me. I’ve become a new person, more alive." 

"I couldn’t talk in front of three people until two weeks back, today you saw me speaking to a hall full of strangers," says Karachi-based Shabana Allah Javaya, who conducted a question-and-answer session with the audience at the screening of ‘Half Face’. 

"I’m going to miss these new friends I spent the best two weeks of my life with," Javaya says. 

Armed with a camera, the women went around the Karachi metropolis and captured the views of men and women, including lawyers at a session court, about domestic violence. The documentary also included an enactment of a man beating his meek wife on some pretext. 

"This is exactly what they wanted to show and they somehow managed to get all of it in," Spencer explains. 

The process involved coming up with a story board – through illustrations, since most of the women could not write – followed by the gruelling task of sifting through and editing the video footage. 

"I was not quite sure how this would work out. None of the women knew any English, they were not even properly schooled, and could not even read or write," says Saleha Athar from the Network for Women’s Rights (NWR) that helped organise the project. 

When they started, the women were very introverted and shy, Spencer recalls. Some would not even make eye contact with her. But it took them just two days to overcome their inhibitions – a metamorphosis that left Athar dumbfounded. 

To allow the women to build on their new training, WISE is donating three cameras and computers so that they can set up centres in Karachi, Hyderabad and Rahimyar Khan. 

Rights activist Rehana Chahchar plans to use film-making to bring women’s issues to the fore. "It’s an invaluable tool and can have more impact than the rallies that we organise," says Chahchar, a member of non-governmental organisation Women’s Action Forum. 

"In rallies we can gather a few hundred people, but through film showings thousands can be mobilised in little time," adds Karachi-based activist Mehtab Noor. 

"People don’t believe that violence is going on in a home but if filmed and shown, there will be irrefutable proof," says one of the nine women, Sanam Mallah, a 16-year-old divorcee from a village near Hyderabad. Others in the group nod in unison. 

Hopefully, these films will provide "a catalyst for discussion" within the communities, Spencer says. 

NWR chief Majida Rizvi believes education is the key. "Without education, violence against women will not end from society," says Rizvi, a retired judge. "Women need to understand their rights and men need to do that too." 

"Very often, it is women who carry on discrimination. As mothers, they show preference for sons like sending them to school while keeping daughters home to help with housework," Rizvi points out. "They are the ones who need to train their sons to show respect to their wives and toward women in general." 

Aug 5, 2010

By Zofeen Ebrahim