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Frontline: Outlawed in Pakistan

Director: Habiba Nosheen, Hilke Schellmann
Cast: Kainat Soomro, Shaban Saikh
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

(PBS; US: 28 May 2013)

The Questions Raised Are Very Unpleasant

“Why would a 13-year-old girl lie that she’s been gang raped by four people?” The question, posed by Kainat Soomro’s lawyer, doesn’t begin to lay out the obstacles facing such a girl. But as you come to see in Outlawed in Pakistan, these obstacles are daunting. Kainat and her family face isolation, anxiety, and mortal threats from the accused and the villagers who are so used to their social order that they can’t imagine changing it. They confront as well a legal structure that places the burden of proof on the alleged victim: neither the police nor government representatives take responsibility for the case, the evidence or proceedings. And they face, at last, a long ordeal. As her lawyer tells her, she can expect five to 10 years of proceedings.


Indeed, the title of Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann’s film, one of 15 short documentary films selected for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and premiering on 28 May as part of Frontline, indicates the starting point for this ordeal: Kainat is “outlawed” by virtue of making her accusation. Still, she and her family persist. At the start of the film, in 2013, the 17-year-old recalls the attack four years before, beginning with her walk home from school as the camera tracks through the narrow village street near the shop where she claims she was held and raped by four men, the shop owner Shaban Saikh and three other men, including a father and son. Tradition in Pakistan, she points out, holds that her own family should kill her, as she’s now and forever an emblem of their disgrace.


Here Kainat’s older brother Sabir describes his own difficulties, instructed by men in the village to take the matter into his own hands. “They are threatening me,” he says, “The male family member,” now responsible for restoring the family’s honor. That he and his father decide instead to take up her cause, to take the case to court, means they are now “outlawed” as well. “They told me I am not a real man,” he says, they tell him, “‘You failed to follow your tradition, you failed to kill your sister.’” Saibr and his father stand firm, determined to make the legal system work for Kainat rather than observing “tradition.” And in this, her lawyer suggests, they are part of a slowly emerging movement of victims, people who will no longer be judged without process, who refuse to see themselves as condemned. 


Still, their lives are changed. They must move from their village, where they tell the filmmakers they had a house and a car, to the city of Karachi, where all 18 family members now live in a two-bedroom apartment. A shot of Kainat’s father and part of the family shows them crowded onto a rug, looking up at the camera, holding babies or stretching their arms to point out the limited space. Kainat’s sister laments what they’ve lost, “all gone because of the fights.” Asked whether she likes her new home, Kainat smiles shyly at the camera. “No,” she says softly, “It’s so small, and everything is so expensive, the water, electricity, and gas.” Because the men are unable to find work, the women do embroidery to pay rent. “We often have to get food through charity,” Kainat says.


While her father declares his determination (“We’ve lost everything, we have nothing to lose”), the camera follows Kainat to the lawyer’s office. Here she sits quietly, wearing her nicest outfit, set back from the camera behind his large wooden desk. He explains what she faces, including appearances in court. When she does go to court, all cameras are barred. The scene offers instead a black and white reenactment of sorts, Kainat on the witness stand in an empty room, as her lawyer recounts what happened. “The questions are very nasty,” he says, “The judge didn’t stop those questions that he should have,” including “What part of your clothing did you remove?” or “Who raped you first?”, framed in “very nasty language.” 


As Kainat and her family recount it, the experience is as horrific, some 200 or 300 questions. The defendants’ lawyer—who takes all four cases and reveals to the filmmakers that he has handled many “famous cases” in the past, including that of the Pakistani president—is proud of his performance. He does his job, noting the affront Kainat has posed even by making such accusations. The accused insist that she was in fact married to one of them the night of the so-called assault, and produce a marriage certificate and photos with the groom, Ahsan, as proof. They offer no negatives, or other evidence that the images aren’t staged, and the narrator points out that this is a common tactic in such cases, to claim that marriage—to a 13-year-old, which is outlawed by secular law—is legal by sharia law. (In the case of such conflicts, tradition tends to hold.)


The narrator points out as well that the judge is affronted by the charges as a matter of course, and rules against Kainat in part because she accused a father and a son of a gang rape. “In his view,” the narrator says, “He said that would never happen in Pakistan,” and so he describes the “accusations as a product of her own fantasy.” 


After the men are acquitted, they agree to sit for an interview, wondering at the gall of this girl. “Why couldn’t Kainat just sit at home and keep quiet?” they wonder, “We are businessmen.” The case is proof to them that Kainat “does not have good character. If she was a decent woman, she would have sat at home, silent.” Ahsan insists that he will recover his wife, and that if he ever hears she is with another man—unlikely, given her outcast status—he will kill the man and her both, righteously.


Even as Kainat and her family say they will fight on, her lawyer suggests the future will be difficult. Still, he says, the future farther along will be different because of strong women like Kainat and their families. As the film tracks the nightmare she continues to endure, it also showcases exactly the strength her lawyer describes.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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