June issue 2009
Ever since she was a little girl, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy knew that she had something to say. She saw stories around her that she felt should be told and faces that needed to be given a voice. In fact, she began expressing this simmering disquiet with the social injustices that stare us in the face, by writing articles for newspapers at the impressionable age of 14. It seems almost logical then that by the age of 21 she had made her first documentary film which went on to win several prestigious awards, including the Livingston Award, being its first non-American recipient. The film, titled Terror’s Children, is a glimpse into the lives of the children of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. With its empathetic approach and unpretentious yet compelling camerawork, the film appeals to all that is human within us. Sharmeen follows the lives of these children and with her gently probing questions, wisely allows their words and expressions to convey more than any script could. Since then she has made 13 other films, covering a host of contentious issues and spanning 10 countries from Canada to Iraq and the Philippines to South Africa. She has also earned herself a slew of other awards and prestigious speaking invitations.
The eldest in a family of five sisters and one brother, Sharmeen grew up in an affluent and “relatively insulated” Karachi home. “Because it was a household full of women, we were always encouraged to do things that traditionally boys are expected to,” recalls Sharmeen. “Two of us played tennis at the national level and another sister was a swimming champion. My parents inculcated two things in us. First, that you can do anything you set your mind to. And second, to always speak the truth.” Armed with these ideals, Sharmeen finished school in Karachi and went on to Smith College in the US with an ambition to join the UN peacekeeping efforts in conflict areas. “But to do this I had to be fluent in two additional languages and it was too late for me to learn.” Instead, she went on to do a double masters from Stanford and it was during her time here that 9/11 happened.
During this time, Sharmeen recalls reading a lot of articles about Pakistan written by people who knew nothing about the region. “I really felt that there was a much deeper element here that needed to be brought out. People didn’t understand the history of the area, the role of the Soviet-US war.” So that winter, she returned to Pakistan and went to work on a series of articles on the Afghans living in Pakistan. During this process, however, Sharmeen realised that the visual impact of her subject would be far greater than words alone. She decided to make a film and returned to the US with ideas and photographs. She was joined by a friend, Mohammad Naqvi, and together they pitched the idea of a documentary film to various channels. “I still have some of the responses I received,” she recalls with a smile. “They were along the lines of ‘You are 21 years old, with a Pakistani passport and no experience, sorry we cannot accept your proposal … ’” Finally, serendipitously, Sharmeen wrote to the head of the New York Times Television, who later told her that he had been stunned by the insight these young people seemed to have on the subject but also that he had taken the biggest risk of his career by agreeing to fund the film. And so Terror’s Children was born. Amusingly enough, the first tapes of the film that were sent back had no audio. “They told me ‘Sharmeen, you forgot to turn on the mike,’” she laughs. “So we had to shoot it all over again.”
The whole experience served to reinforce Sharmeen’s belief that anything is possible. “I always tell young people, ‘Don’t take no for an answer. Turn it into a yes.’” Winning so many accolades so early on only made her more determined to forge ahead and unearth the difficult stories that were going untold. In the course of her career, whichever country she has worked in, Sharmeen is drawing attention to bigotry, injustice and negligence. In Saudi Arabia she explored the lives of women, trying to gauge how they really feel about their marginalised lives. In the Philippines, she unearthed an abortion racket fed by poverty and desperation. In Canada, she followed the trail of young aboriginal women who have gone missing one after the other, leaving no clues.
Back home in Pakistan, Sharmeen followed up her first film with several others which explored the growing Islamic radicalism in the country. With a dupatta on her head and questions on her lips, she went to the Frontier in the wake of the MMA electoral sweep there. But how did billboard-defacing young zealots take to being interviewed by a non-purdah observing woman? “I believe we all share a common bond that is of humanity,” says Sharmeen. “And that is how I approach people and I think they understand that.” She also journeyed into Afghanistan for a firsthand account of the lives of Afghani women after being liberated from the Taliban by the West. The film is a telling indictment of the callous abandonment of this nation. “It gives you a lot of humility to step into someone else’s shoes and experience their lives,” says Sharmeen who literally did just that by donning a burqa and begging on the streets of Kandahar with an Afghan war widow. Other stories are equally heart-rending and sometimes inspirational. “In Peshawar, I visited a paraplegic centre and met a little girl called Kainaat there. She had lost nine members of her family to a mortar attack and was injured herself. When I asked her what she wanted for herself, she said she wanted to become a doctor. That spirit of hers, in the face of so much adversity, has stayed with me.”
In her most recent film on Pakistan, The Taliban Generation, Sharmeen reveals the frightening truth about how the US-Pakistan war on terror is breeding a new generation of Taliban fighters in our homeland. Sharmeen ventured into the conflict-riddled north and the region of Swat earlier this year to talk to the victims of this disturbing situation. “It is very unfair to say that the people of Swat brought this crisis on themselves. They are a conservative people who want Shariah but not the bastardised version that the Taliban are offering. These are educated men and women, whose daughters went to school. They wore chadars but not burqas before the Taliban came.”
In fact, Sharmeen asserts that the people of Swat feel abandoned by the rest of the country. She reveals that there was no operation in place before the present campaign and, in reality, the army was in its bunkers while the militants were allowed to roam around freely. “When someone was knocking on their doors to give up their children, they had no one to turn to,” points out Sharmeen. “Why was a very powerful man brandishing a very militant version of what I don’t even recognise as Islam, allowed to actively recruit fighters? No one stopped them and it is happening even now, in Karachi and Islamabad.” Sharmeen warns of the small unregulated madrassas which manage to fly below the radar and have cropped up in cities like Karachi, preaching a very militant version of Islam. “But the problem with even the larger, more respected madrassas is that they don’t encourage any kind of critical thinking,” she points out. “The students have no access to any view besides what they are being given and hence, we are producing generations of brainwashed individuals.”
Whatever the state’s failures in the past, now that the army is actively engaged in the region, she strongly feels that we must support our troops. “When a body comes home from the frontlines, it is that of a soldier. Anywhere in the world, when the army is engaged in fighting to protect its borders, they must have the support of their people.”
She also stresses the need for responsible journalism in this critical hour and is less than effusive about the role played by some sections of the media.
Sharmeen has sometimes been criticised for not offering a more positive image of Pakistan. “I am proud to be a Pakistani. It is a beautiful, dynamic country but we cannot afford to sweep our problems under the rug.” She is of the opinion that we can no longer solely point fingers at others for our problems. “We need to ask the difficult questions about land reform, about injustices against women from those in power. Half our parliament is full of landlords. Then there are ministers who think it is culturally acceptable to bury women alive.” But don’t western audiences also sit up and take notice of stories from Pakistan only when they fit into their preconceptions about fundamentalism? Sharmeen disagrees. “The range of my work speaks for itself,” she states. “I have covered so many subjects in so many places, and all of them don’t deal with fundamentalism.”
Sharmeen has been fortunate in having the support of her parents’ and then also her husband and in-laws on this difficult and even dangerous path that she has chosen. Fired with zeal, filled with the energy and enthusiasm of youth, Sharmeen seems determined to lead the way to change. She is certain that positive things will happen, and her refusal to define herself by ethnicity will enable her to reclaim Jinnah’s Pakistan. “I believe that everyone has a calling and we also have only one life to live. We must give something back in this life.” She feels that young people today have the enthusiasm but are denied viable and accessible opportunities to make a difference. “We have to inculcate the ethos of volunteerism and schools and colleges should be the centres of such an effort. We can no longer afford to fail Pakistan. Otherwise our children will never forgive us.”
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.