The human rights activist and documentary film-maker on her fight against compensation marriages
Samar Minallah Khan is an inspiration. She is a woman who has dedicated her life to the cause of putting an end to the inhuman practice of compensation marriages in Pakistan.
Known in film-making circles as ‘the crusader with a camera’, Samar is a trailblazer in her own right, who has used the medium of documentary film-making to bring about social change in the country.
Samar’s debut documentary in 2003 ‘Swara — A Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ was the first step towards breaking the silence on this culturally-sanctioned violent act and a year later it led to a law (Section 310-A of PPC) being passed against compensation marriages.
Having won numerous national and international awards for her work, Samar was most recently honoured with the Global Leadership Award at the 14th Annual Vital Voices ceremony in Washington DC. Vital Voices celebrates extraordinary women from across the world who work fearlessly to bring about social change in their communities.
As The Express Tribune sat down with the film-maker to discuss her incredible work, Samar said her latest award meant a lot to her personally. “Somehow I always felt my vision was targeting a particular local audience, but I never realised that internationally a larger audience would be able to relate to what I believe in,” she said.
Recalling the ceremony, where four other amazing women from Cameroon, Myanmar, Tunisia and Guatemala were honoured and which featured former president Bill Clinton as the chief guest, Samar said, “I was pretty terrified because it was a jam-packed auditorium and we had to speak like one speaks at TEDx … but it all went well.”
A few good men
The aspect of Samar’s work which led to the award is a common feature in her films: to have men and boys on board.
Samar said one of her goals is to celebrate men of the community as change-makers, heroes and silent partners in the struggle to end violence against women. “I’ve come across some amazingly brave fathers who stood up against these customs in remote communities. I feel it’s very difficult for them and extremely brave to challenge your own culture and your own traditions.”
When she started documenting compensation marriages in the tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) in 2003, Samar was an angry activist and feminist who thought all men were horrible. “But over a period of time I realised I was wrong and that if we have one or two men who think the way we think when it comes to this injustice, I feel we can always work with those few good men.”
Moreover, she realised that if these men become your allies it is much easier to work in their communities as one then has the ability to challenge a particular mindset instead of a gender.
Recalling a similar incident, Samar said there was once a mosque’s imam from Swabi who came to an event where she was speaking and said that from that day, he would condemn Swara marriages in his madrassah. “This was a big breakthrough for me,” she said.
Samar also vehemently believes in engaging young boys in this dialogue from an early age so they start looking at women with respect.
Getting behind the lens
Samar studied Anthropology at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and went on to the University of Cambridge where she received an MPhil in Anthropology and Development. At Cambridge, she attended a class on ethnographic film-making and realised there was much more to documentary film-making than she had previously thought.
“I was always interested in studying and researching the culture of Pukhtun women as I myself come from K-P. So when I returned to Pakistan, I realised film was the medium I wanted to explore.”
Initially, Samar began writing for news magazines and other publications but the feedback she received, despite being positive, was not what she was looking for. The educated class was not her desired audience; she wanted to reach out to the Pukhtun community directly affected by these practices. So, she decided that film, and that too in a regional language, would be the best tool to generate a dialogue on these issues.
Recalling one of her first experiences, Samar said, “Once I went to a village in Matta, Swat where a woman was working the fields with her daughter. Someone had told me that a girl was given in Swara so I just went up to her to ask if she knew about the incident and surprisingly the woman’s daughter was the one given in Swara. I had just learned how to use a video camera and the mother and daughter both volunteered to narrate the horrific tale. Something that really hit me was when the daughter said, ‘I couldn’t do anything, I was helpless.’ When I went back to Peshawar, her words kept haunting me and it was then that I decided to pursue this issue,” she recalls. “Why should a murderer get away with his crime and an innocent girl be made to pay the price of his crime for the rest of her life,” she asked herself then.
Narrating another tale, Samar said a man from Mardan called her once and said a local jirga was going to decide if his eight-year-old daughter Marina would be given as compensation. “I was surprised that the father was really upset and was willing to do anything to save his daughter. I went to the jirga and asked them if I could address the elders. As I was properly dressed and could speak the language, they allowed me to do so. I told them what our religion and law says on the issue and pleaded that the father can give them anything but his daughter. The jirga then decided to take money instead and then, in what is still the happiest moment of my life, I went up to Marina’s father to tell him he that will not lose his little girl today.”
The first film
“Later on, I made my first documentary on Swara in Pashto. It helped break the silence on this issue since people could see the images and hear the voices of those affected. I realised then that this was the best medium to bring about change,” Samar recalls.
Though her main target audience is the tribal community, Samar also wants to leave an impact on policy-makers and the media.
“When I screened the documentary at the Peshawar Press Club, local journalists there weren’t happy with what they saw as they weren’t expecting that a Pashtun would make something that would ‘betray’ the community. So, I was a bit taken aback when I realised everyone was upset with me.”
However, the following day, Samar realised that despite the journalists’ coverage of the event, the issue had left an impact and they would eventually realise they have to highlight these things through the media.
Samar tried not to get discouraged and went ahead with her work. After much advocacy, in 2004, the law was changed and a new section was added to the Pakistan Penal Code (310-A) wherein whoever gives or takes girls as compensation can be arrested for three to 10 years. “There were a lot of encouraging incidents in this journey and I realised this was something I wanted to continue for the rest of my life.”
Samar admits that just having a law against something does not make the problem go away though. That is why she reaches out to law enforcement agencies and regularly visits the judicial academy and the police and meets with policemen at the district level throughout Pakistan to train and inform them about the law and how it can be enforced.
She has also been involved in training students at the Civil Service Academy in Lahore. “This has been a very positive experience for me because these young officers are posted across the country and even if three out of 20 are sensitised by my work, they can bring about change.”
Change, one action at a time
Owing to her anthropology background, Samar looks for unconventional means of communication to send her message across. “I convinced a truck artist in Peshawar to paint an image from my documentary along with a verse from the Holy Quran saying whoever commits a crime will have to pay the price. After one of the truck drivers did it, several others wanted it too.”
In Lahore, Samar asked an artist to design and develop a Pukhtun woman character, Khor Bibi, whose messages against child marriages, honour killings and Swara were painted behind rickshaws and became very popular.
Passionate about film
Giving advice to upcoming film-makers, Samar says, “I want to tell the youth that if you’re really passionate about something, you can even make a film with a mobile phone as it just has to be something that comes from your heart. Tell a story if you believe in it, regardless of whether it will resonate with an international audience or win an award.” Dispelling the myth that one needs expensive equipment to start shooting a documentary, Samar says she started off with an ordinary camera and without any experience in film-making. Her passion was the driving force. “I just have to make a film when I am disturbed or upset,” she shares.
Samar’s daughter Sarah accompanied the film-maker on all her trips. “Even if I was in the tribal areas shooting something, she and my son Salaar would be sitting in the background; so, I guess love for documentaries came naturally to her,” says Samar.
Sarah, who graduates from school soon, made her first documentary on the impact of pesticides on cotton-picking girls and women in Multan. Her first film won her the second prize at an international film festival. Samar’s protégé hasn’t looked back since.
Talking about family support, Samar says she is very lucky to have such a supportive spouse. Her husband is a government servant in Lahore, while their son Salaar studies at LUMS. The couple has always encouraged their children to follow their heart.
Samar realises that it’s a long, difficult road ahead, but believes that change will come, albeit one step at a time.
She also acknowledges the dangers of her work; people are killed for questioning traditions and customs in the tribal areas, especially women. “I always knew that it would be difficult and will get dangerous at times, but when you see a girl being saved from this horrible custom, it’s all worth it.”
Alizeh Abbas is an Islamabad-based freelance writer. She tweets @alizehkabbas
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 18th, 2015.