Award-winning Pakistani Journalist Says Her Work is Inspired by the Courage of Abuse Victims

  • Pakistani filmmaker says threats arising from her reports on abuse are a “badge of courage.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an intrepid journalist whose films have sparked national debates and prompted new laws to protect victims of abuse in Pakistan, says she is inspired by the courage and determination of those who survive and tell their stories.

In Washington to accept the prestigious Knight International Journalism Award from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) on Nov. 9, Obaid-Chinoy said her reports about women and children who are victimized have made her the object of threats. But she said, “I became a journalist and a filmmaker to expose the truth, which is not always easy.”

Obaid-Chinoy has turned a spotlight on difficult subjects such as acid attacks that disfigure more than 200 women per year in Pakistan, usually at the hands of a family member. She has focused on “honor killings” in which a husband or father murders a young woman deemed to have dishonored the family, often by marrying a man they didn’t choose for her. And she has explored how the Taliban uses poor young boys as suicide bombers.

Her documentaries have led to speedier trials for victims of acid attacks and pushed Pakistan’s parliament to pass a law making “honor killing” a crime. Prior to the law's existence, perpetrators could escape punishment through a loophole that allowed their families to forgive them.

She has won two Academy Awards for her short documentaries: "A Girl in the River" in 2016 and "Saving Face" in 2012.

“The different worlds we slip in and out of, the people we meet, the intensity we experience, is nothing compared to those people who live in those circumstances, those who live in the face of constant adversity,” said Obaid-Chinoy, addressing nearly 600 media leaders and supporters.

She told of a woman named Zakia who was severely disfigured when her husband threw acid in her face. “She had lost an eye, part of her nose and her skin had melted. She now lived from one surgery to the next, in the hope that a surgeon would make her whole again,” the journalist said, adding: “The determination of the people whose stories we bring to the world is what makes our work worthwhile.”

Obaid-Chinoy dedicated the Knight Award to her parents, who always stood by her, she said, from the early days of her career when her house was spray-painted with obscenities by teenage gang members she exposed.

“Today, the spray-painting has been replaced by abuse and threats online,” she said. “I now wear the names that I am called as a badge of honor.”

In 2012, Obaid-Chinoy set up a production company in Pakistan to train a new generation of truth seekers. Most recently, she released a virtual reality documentary series, “Look But With Love,” that offers what she has called “a look at Pakistan beyond the headlines.”

When it comes to doing her work, Obaid-Chinoy said: “We know that it is not going to be easy. Journalists are routinely killed, kidnapped or threatened. Ours is now a dangerous profession. We know and accept that.”

But she said each time a law or policy is changed because of their work, she considers it “a win” for the victims, adding that “the wins keep us going, and we choose to focus on them.”

Read her full remarks.