No More Girl Heroes: Outlawed in Pakistan
The story of Kainat Soomro is a moving one. Kainat is a Pakistani teenager of 17. When she was 13, she was abducted and gang-raped by four men. Since that time, she has worked tirelessly to bring the rapists to justice; hiring an attorney, making television appearances, appealing court decisions. Her family was ordered to carry out an honor killing as Kainat was declared kari (black virgin) and being a rape victim brings shame to the family, according to parts of Pakistani culture and judiciary. Kainat’s parents refused to kill their daughter. Since then, Kainat and her family were forced to leave the village where they lived. The alleged rapists have beaten her father and one of her brothers. Kainat’s older brother, Sabir was missing for three months, only to be found murdered. It is believed he was killed due to his support for his sister. It’s not overstating things to say that Kainat’s young life has been deeply touched by tragedy. Her persistence in her quest for justice and unwillingness to back down in the face of continued adversity are heroic.
After following Kainat’s story for more than a year, I was pleased to see that a film was being made about her life. The film, Outlawed in Pakistan by filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman premieres at Sundance this week and will air on PBS’ Frontline in Spring 2013. I had set a Google news alert for Kainat in order to keep up with her case and story. There wasn’t much on her in the American press, though Nosheen and Schellman had written an article on Kainat for The Atlantic Monthly in September 2011. Every so often an email would arrive with an update. Not to sound dramatic, but with each of those alerts, I worried the news would be very bad and was relieved that she was alive. I’d like to believe that the film will bring international attention to Kainat and her family and keep them safe.
In talking with directors Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman about Outlawed in Pakistan, I had to shed my expectation that our conversation would center on Kainat as a role model and hero. It’s not that she isn’t those things, but Nosheen and Schellman describe the film as a journalistic, point-of-view piece that tells the story of Kainat, the alleged rapists and everyone touched directly by this still unfolding story. As Nosheen put it,
I think our goal is to share this glimpse of life that we’ve managed to capture around this particular story that’s spanned over five years. To give people a sense of what fighting a rape in Pakistan looks like. And how there are similarities and differences [between Pakistan and the West]. That’s our goal as filmmakers and journalists– to inform people and to tell stories. Hopefully to tell interesting stories about life in other parts of the world that you and I may not get to experience and see on a day-to-day basis.
Schellman went on to explain that the film tells “what is the typical rape case in Pakistan.” Rather than relying on medical evidence, DNA and strong, careful investigation, rape cases often boil down to a he said-she said model of inefficiency. The filmmakers said that they aren’t activists. But where do we draw that line between activist and journalist? Nosheen and Schellman are clear in their intention to tell the story as objectively as possible and not interject their own agenda.
Maybe you listen to the news in the morning to check the weather and then dress accordingly. The weather report on the news informs us and we take action from there. This is a simplistic version of the way journalism affects our lives, but I use it to illustrate my point. When I read about Kainat’s story in Nosheen and Schellman’s article for The Atlantic, I was moved. As a writer, I knew I wanted to write about her story, to draw attention to her case, to do something. Film can be even more immediate in evoking an emotional response in an audience. In Outlawed in Pakistan, we’ll get to hear Kainat’s voice, we’ll witness her grief and resolve along with that of her family, the alleged rapists and other parties. The storytellers, if they’ve done their job well, cause us to feel something. Will that lead to direct action? Sometimes. Is that enough to create change?
Widespread protests broke out in India after Jyoti Singh Pandey was gang-raped by six men and died due to injuries from the attack. There is the case of the 16-year-old in Steubenville, Ohio who was allegedly sexually assaulted while unconscious. Photographs and descriptions of the assault were circulated over social media. The story has grabbed headlines and there’s a rift forming in the local community over the case. Through my research and reading, cases of rape and brutal attacks against women and girls pile up. Girls and women of all ages, from all over the world have been attacked, raped and in some cases murdered. These are very difficult stories to read and take in.
I mentioned the reports about Pandey and others to Nosheen and Schellman because the stories have raised outcry on a global scale. Nosheen said,
“I think there are various elements at play here … I think cumulatively these stories just add to the narrative of the fact that we need to pay attention to what’s happening in Asia in regards to sexual violence. Whether it’s Malala or somebody from India, I think it serves the same purpose in raising awareness in many parts of the world that are not aware of the struggles that women face everyday in countries like Pakistan and India.”
I’m glad that Kainat’s story will be told. I’m glad the film Outlawed in Pakistan will be shown at Sundance and on PBS. The truth is that as much as I want to help get the story out on Kainat and girls like her, I also wanted to cheer for a hero. Reading story after story of girls and women being brutally attacked and raped, I’ve realized that I don’t want one more teenage girl to have to step up and be brave in front of the camera. Or to speak out on behalf of victims everywhere. Or to have family members harmed or murdered because they support her. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the girls and women who are seeking justice and speaking up. They are exemplary and brave, as are the men and women who fight alongside them. But I don’t want anymore of these girl heroes. I want the violence and rape to stop.