Pakistan's Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: The Oscar double winner

  • 29 February 2016
  • From the section Asia
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy poses with her second Oscar Image copyright AFP

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, 37, has made history as the only Pakistani to win two Oscars.

On Tuesday, she made headlines in Pakistan when her name was called at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, for best short subject documentary film of the year.

She walked up to the stage to accept the award, waved her Oscar triumphantly and said: "I have another one!"

The film, A Girl in the River - The Price of Forgiveness, highlights the issue of honour killings in Pakistan. It traces the story of an 18-year-old woman, Saba, who was shot by her relatives to redeem their family honour, and dumped into a river. She miraculously survived to tell her story.

The subject of honour killings is not discussed much in Pakistan - mainly because most of the crimes go unreported and the victims remain unknown.

This is why Ms Obaid Chinoy chose it as the subject for her latest film.

In her acceptance speech, she said that after seeing the film, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed to change the law on honour killings.

"That is the power of film," she said.

Media captionSharmeen Obaid-Chinoy spoke to the BBC ahead of the Oscars ceremony

But legislation could prove difficult to implement in this religiously conservative society.

Although religious leaders condemn the killings, there is wide support for the tradition.

Murderers avoid punishment if they are forgiven by the family of their victims.

Sharmeen Chinoy was born in Karachi in 1978. She did her early schooling at the prestigious Karachi Grammar School, and later studied mass communications at Stanford University in the US.

Since 2010, she has reported, produced and directed over a dozen documentary films.

Apart from two Oscars, she has also won two Emmy Awards for her documentaries in 2010 and 2013, and was awarded the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (The Crescent of Distinction), the second highest civilian award of Pakistan, in 2012, soon after she won her first Oscar.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption There are hundreds of so-called "honour killings" in Pakistan each year

I sat down with Sharmeen a few weeks before her Oscar win. She said that apart from the accolade, she was happy that the film has allowed the subject to be discussed publicly.

"Honour killing is a taboo subject in Pakistan," she said.

"It's a very private affair. It happens when a father kills a daughter, when a brother kills a sister and it's left in the family.

"Often times you don't find out the names of the women, you don't find the bodies, you don't even know that a woman has been killed."

Sharmeen is no stranger to difficult subjects.

In 2012, she won an Oscar for another short subject documentary she made on acid attacks in Pakistan, an equally gory practice in which "shamed" relatives" or jilted lovers deface their female victims by throwing acid at them.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Acid attack victims are often left with devastating facial injuries

She told me that as a Pakistani filmmaker, she's interested in the issues that affect people here.

"There's a lot that needs to be fixed in Pakistan," she said.

She says she received criticism from people who say she only highlights the worst aspects of the country.

However, "I live in Pakistan and I must talk about these issues," she said.

Sharmeen said that she's been pushing for a bill against honour killings. One had already been put forward by the senate but collapsed in parliament due to disagreement between the government and the opposition.

An exception

Looking through her busy office, there are shelves packed with awards, including one of her Emmys, and pictures of Sharmeen with celebrities like Meryl Streep and US presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton.

"The Oscar is not here unfortunately," she said when she saw me looking for it.

"I keep it locked up safely!" she laughed.

It's easy to see that Sharmeen is an exception, not just because she's now Pakistan's only double Oscar winner, but also because she's a successful female filmmaker in a society where thousands of women are still up against practices like acid attacks and honour killings.

"If this bill [against honour killings] passes then I'll already be a winner when I walk down the red carpet," she said at the time.

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