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Evan Agostini/AP, Evan Agostini

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Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Discusses Pakistan, Her Mission, and More

Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy talks about how she uses documentaries to oppose prejudice and intolerance from Iraq to the Phillippines.

If Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy had a magic wand, the first thing she would do is fix intolerance. The 35-year-old journalist and filmmaker, whose 2012 film Saving Face won an Oscar for best documentary short film, has dedicated her life to telling the stories of those without a voice. “Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of highlighting the stories of marginalized populations, from Iraqi refugees in Iraq to reproductive health activists in the Philippines,” she told Women in the World.  “My travels have taught me one core thing: one can never really know what motivates and propels someone else until you spend some time in their shoes.”

Women in the World caught up with Obaid-Chinoy in Bangladesh before she co-hosts the fifth annual Women in the World summit April 3-5 in New York City.

WITW: If you had a magic wand that would fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

Obaid-Chinoy: I would fix the amount of intolerance in this world. As a documentary filmmaker, I am able to spend time with the characters that I featured in my films, and it was only after witnessing their struggles, and seeing their triumphs and trials first hand that I began to understand their motivations and goals.

Where did you first experience intolerance?

I grew up in the city of Karachi, the most diverse city in Pakistan with a population of 20 million people. As a child, I remember being able to see the multitude of identities in the city, from celebrating Christmas, to partaking in Diwali, to wishing people Happy Nauroz and Happy Easter. Our religious and ethnic identities were secondary to our firm belief in being Pakistani’s first. Today, this fluid interpretation of identity has been replaced by a deep-seated fear of the ‘other.’ The definition of a ‘Pakistani’ is narrowing every day, with more and more people being treated as second-class citizens. I believe that many of Pakistan’s issues can be negated simply through open and effective communication between various communities and groups. Once I wave my magic wand, I know that we will find our common humanity other than our superficial differences.

What is the thing that worries you most about the plight of women in Pakistan?

I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as ‘more important and more pressing’ matters. Conversations in Pakistan, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament, are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a nation that is currently fighting a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance. In the past, nations that have gone through similar bouts of unrest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have bartered the issue of women’s rights for what was posed as the greater political good. I fear that the same will happen in Pakistan. We are currently in negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, and one of their core objectives is the instating of an archaic and orthodox form of Sharia Law.

What is your hope for the women of Pakistan?

I hope that our fundamental rights, such as access to health care and education, are not negotiated away in return for a short-term solution that may not prevail in the long term. The very fact that women are currently unable to make their own policy decisions in certain parts of the country is an alarming reality, and pushes us further away from being the owners of our own stories and fighters for our own rights.

What are the three most important stories that haven’t been told yet?

Stories that do not fit with the current narrative are the stories that often remain untold. I am currently completing a film about Bangladeshi policewomen who are serving as U.N. peacekeeping forces in Haiti. Around the world, more and more women are getting involved in the armed forces and are fighting in active combat, yet their complex stories often go unnoticed. Secondly, the stories of the minorities in Pakistan are going unreported, ranging from false allegations of blasphemy to institutionalized prejudice. These stories have not been told because people are fearful of being prosecuted for speaking out. Lastly, the plight of the Baloch people, from the Balochistan province of Pakistan, is arguably one of Pakistan’s best-kept secrets. The Baloch insurgency has been rampant for years, and many people have been targeted in relation to it. However, any journalist who dares to report on the issue is swiftly warned against pursuing the story.

Who is your hero/heroine? 

My heroine is Humaira Bachal, an educator based out of Muwach Goth, an urban dwelling in Karachi, Pakistan. Humaira began her career as a teenager teaching students out of her home, before shifting into a small rented property in her neighborhood. When word got out about her plans, people in Humaira’s community started taunting her, and demanded that her family vacate their homes and settle elsewhere. Despite the growing suspicions regarding her work, Humaira continued to pursue the cause of education publicly. She would go from house to house to convince parents to send their daughters to school. Soon Humaira was teaching more than 1200 students—an unprecedented number for an area that had no schooling system before she created one herself. Today, Humaira has raised enough funds to build a state of the art facility in which thousands of children will receive a first class education. The people of Muwach Goth have realized that she is an asset to their community and have accepted her mission.

What are Humaira’s qualities that you most admire?

Humaira is my heroine because she is unstoppable. She is clear about her goal and is focused in its pursuit. She fought for her right to an education, and is now fighting for the rights of others. Her story gives me hope for Pakistan, and her courage and resilience bolsters and reminds me of the fact that there is still a lot of good in this country, and it must be protected and celebrated.

What do you think most people don’t understand about discrimination?

I think that most people see discrimination as something that is acted out; it is either a racial slur or a gendered reaction. However, discrimination is often something that is embedded in the very system that we live in, from the way we run our infrastructure to the way our laws are written. Pakistan is replete with ideas of systemic discrimination, from the way our rape laws are worded to the fact that we are forced to denounce a certain religious sect in order to obtain a Pakistani passport. Discrimination is something that we live. It is present in the depictions of women in Pakistani television as either saints or whores, it is present in the way we distribute resources among our four ethnically divergent provinces, and it is rampant in our electoral process. In order to really root out discrimination, we need to fix the way we live first in order to change the behavior that is a result of it.

Who is your mentor?

My mentor is Bill Abrams, who was the president of the New York Times television department and was my first boss. Bill gave me my first break when I was in college in the U.S., and gave me the training and resources required to make my first film, Terror’s Children. Above all, he gave me the confidence to pursue documentary filmmaking as a career, and I haven’t looked back since.

Watch the Women in the World Summit live on The Daily Beast starting Thursday, April 3 at 6:30 p.m. EST.

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