Updated Mar 01, 2016 02:24pm

Finding Saba: How a brave honour-killing survivor's story came to win an Oscar

It was this time of the year in 2012 when I met Haya Fatima Iqbal after a long time.

She had just returned from her Masters in New York, so we had a lot to catch up on, gossip included. But what Haya really wanted to talk about was her options as a documentary filmmaker in Pakistan.

Little did we know back then that she will make it to the Oscars, just four years down the line. Haya worked as a co-producer on Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short yesterday.

Haya Fatima Iqbal, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Asad Faruqi at the Oscars ceremony Haya Fatima Iqbal, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Asad Faruqi at the Oscars ceremony

The documentary, a joint production of SOC Films and Home Box Office, follows the life of 18-year-old Saba, who is a survivor of an honour killing attempt — by her father.

Finding Saba

It started from a news story published in a local Urdu daily in June 2014.

“It said that a girl named Saba had miraculously survived an attempt on her life in Hafizabad. Her father had reportedly shot her for marrying a man of her choice against the family’s will,” Haya began.

“We read the news and decided to pursue the story. I, along with Sharmeen and crew, reached Hafizabad the very next day, where Saba was currently in intensive care at the district’s hospital.”

Inspired by Saba's miraculous survival, Haya set out to chronicle her story with Sharmeen and the rest of the crew Inspired by Saba's miraculous survival, Haya set out to chronicle her story with Sharmeen and the rest of the crew

After a few initial inquiries, the team went to the police station to get more information.

Seeing the police in action

Haya said they assumed that the police would be reluctant in providing the specifics of the incident and would have to be forced to arrest the accused.

“But to our sheer surprise, the arrests had already been made and a case was filed. The SHO of Saddar police station in Hyderabad, Ali Akbar Chattha, was a principled man with clear perception about the case,” Haya shared.

He said in clear words that a crime has been committed and that “no one holds the right to take someone else’s life”.

Chattha was under no pressure and the only thing he was concerned about in this case was serving justice. “The SHO once said to us that Islam gives everyone the right to marry the person of their choice, so who are we to interfere.”

Hospital care

Haya said that Saba, the victim, had been very lucky. Not only did she survive the attempt on her life, but she was provided legal and medical aid by good, honest professionals.

“Dr Shahid Farooq was the Medical Superintendent of DHQ Hafizabad at that time. He and surgeon Dr Atif provided the best possible medical care to the injured Saba.”

Haya found the police as well as the legal and medical aid providers to be honest and professional Haya found the police as well as the legal and medical aid providers to be honest and professional

Throughout her hospital stay, Saba was kept in a private room and provided special security, considering the nature of the crime committed against her, shared Haya .

When Saba survived, her husband Qaiser Ali, a Gujranwala-based generator mechanic, was informed and the news spread to Saba’s family as well.

Court dealings

While both families approached Saba, the legal battle had begun.

Saba’s father confessed to attempting to kill his daughter in court. “But he [did] not [feel] guilty [about his actions]. He appeared a humble person but he was anything but guilty for attempting to kill Saba.”

Haya covered many of the court hearings, running to and fro between Karachi and Hazfizabad. “There were times when we travelled all the way for a court hearing, but it got cancelled for some reason as odd as bad weather.”

We interviewed Saba’s father behind bars and during court proceedings, but he was never ashamed of what he had done, tells Haya Fatima.

“Instead, he mentioned proudly that his act had [earned] him more respect and now people called him ‘ghairatmand’ (honourable). Saba’s father also told us that more suitors were coming to marry his other daughters, because he was a respected man.”

“Such people are more threatening than the suicide bombers," says Haya. "They are set to take the life of anyone and yet they don’t feel a thing about it. And the worst thing is that society also accepts and approves of them.”

Getting Saba to talk

Interviewing Saba was a tough job in the beginning, narrates Haya Fatima. “She was badly wounded and was weak too. She had problems while speaking and we had to switch off the fan [to record her clearly]. This irritated her as it gets very hot in Punjab in the summer.”

Recording Saba was one of the toughest parts of the documentary's making Recording Saba was one of the toughest parts of the documentary's making

“We had to do the recordings in small bits due to Saba’s medical condition. But she had nerves of steel. At times I used to think that other than the physical pain, one can’t imagine the level of mental trauma she has been through. How can you get over with the fact that your own father shot you and left you for dead? I still can’t get this but supposedly Saba was asked to do so.”

The court proceedings of the case went on for about four months. In the end, Saba pardoned her father.

Haya Fatima listed several possible reasons for Saba's decision, but halfway into the discussion she herself started to question them.

Saba forgave her father after she was persuaded by her family elders, said Haya Fatima.

“'You can’t go against your own family.' 'You have to live with them no matter what.' That’s what they said to Saba.”

A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness shows that even if the state awards punishment to criminals, they do nothing to change the mindset of people who glorify criminals and murderers.


This story originally appeared in Dawn newspaper on March 1 2016.

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Comments (22) Closed



Fudayl Mar 01, 2016 01:35pm

Seems like an excellent documentary. I am confused; is it because the perpetrators of honor crimes against women are Muslims or because the perpetrators have a tribal background? In my extended family, if someone is violent against a female member of his family, let alone trying to kill her, that person will face social boycot for sure. We are Muslims but our forefathers quit tribal mindset, if any.

Rashid Sultan Mar 01, 2016 02:06pm

Only a society with no moral underpinnings considers the act of murder as Ghairat. The SHO's reasoning that marrying someone of choice is 'permitted in Islam' was why he arrested the father and therefore not because of the heinous crime of murder. This is strange irrational reasoning by a man supposed to uphold the rule of law not religion. A murderer is a murderer and deserves appropriate trial and punishment to fit the crime once proven guilty. We are, at best, uncivilised backward peoples.

imdadali Mar 01, 2016 02:22pm

saba showed maturity by pardoning her father who even tried to kill her. why we are not following the islamic ideologies while taking decision of life of our children.

Parvez Mar 01, 2016 02:46pm

Excellent write up........it tells the story of whats behind the curtain.........the real issue that needs correction.

Imtiaz Mar 01, 2016 02:48pm

If school curriculum is changed to science heavy secular international and Islamiat made optional instead of present compulsory, within two generations we will get positive results.

There is no other magic wand to change people's mindset.

Zak Mar 01, 2016 05:01pm

Thank you for a nice piece.

Zak Mar 01, 2016 05:03pm

@Fudayl this is man made cultural perceptions taking precedence over Islamic teachings. Reson being the religious people who teach them, themselves are illiterate in the comprehension of the true teachings. They mostly come from villages and dispense village mentality. Government and the educated need to take lead in addressing this issue .

Zak Mar 01, 2016 05:06pm

I hope the attributes of the good and principled policemen, like Chattanooga, Doctors others who helped Saba were highlighted in the documentary,moto show for every rotten apple, there are umpteen good people in Pakistan, including Haya and Sharmeen.

Imran Mar 01, 2016 06:05pm

Ms Haya and Ms Chinoy made an intelligent selection of the story and topic to ensure they catch the attention of the Oscar comittee. . So they got their Oscars and glory. . but what will happen to poor Saba? Will she also benefit from this film in any way, financially or otherwise?

Amar Mar 01, 2016 08:50pm

My heart salutes to each and everyone involved in this documentary, which won the Oscar. No human being, has any right to kill the other human being, regardless, if a girl is marrying against your family wish. She has full right to do what she thinks is right, your duty is to advice if you feel that way. Who has given someone the right of God or from God to kill some innocent people, who are going against your Ghairat or wishes. Each and everyone on this world need to understand that HONOUR KILLING IS NOT LEGAL, AND SHOULD BE STOPPED, regardless of any reason.

AKH Mar 01, 2016 10:38pm

Well done Haya!!! Wish you more success in future. By the way was Haya's name mentioned by Ms.Chinoy in her acceptance speech?

Parveen Sadiq Mar 01, 2016 10:43pm

While watching the Oscars here in USA ,i was overwhelmed to see Sharmeen win the Oscars again.It made me so proud of her.Now knowing that there was another main player in this real life drama Haya Fatima,i would like to congratulate both strong and brave ladies to bring this horrible incident to the public.I hope that they will bring more social problems to the forefront.

Messum Zaidi Mar 02, 2016 01:09am

Hi Tauseef Razi Mallick - very interesting article to read. Haya is truly a treasure for Pakistan.

On a side note, can you provide credits on the pictures you have used for this article. I took them on a particular event.

Thanks!

Confused Mar 02, 2016 02:06am

I love my daughter more than any body in my life, even more than life itself. I work hard day and night to provide a comfortable, respectable living for her. Send her to best school, have religious and social education imparted, dress her best clothes and try in instill in her the highest and most valuable, ageless values of life and social behavior. Then she turns a teen ager, goes after young illiterate rough and misbehaved boys. What should I do ? Let this sick diseased corrupt society and government tell me what to do ? No one has any good answer. Do they !

K.A. Muhammad Mar 02, 2016 07:07am

I simply do not understand the very concept of Honor Killing, or its source; that is, from it has been drawn, or derived! Would it not be justified to ask these Honor Killers during the course of legal hearing to establish Moral, Legal and Social bases or grounds to justify their such a brutal or barbaric act!

Do they commit such an inhuman act out of Moral Obligation, or is it out of Social Obligation! In either case they must cite or refer to an establish authority, such as the holy Book Qura'an or Hadith, or principles and practices of the society in general.

Akhtar Ali Mar 02, 2016 09:56am

Sharmeen, You are doing excellent service to the society & the nation, I hope we learn positive lessons from such happenings & make our society peaceful & tolerant,

Noshin Mar 02, 2016 12:26pm

Thanks to Haya

Noshin Mar 02, 2016 12:28pm

All this is because of illiteracy and lack and unawareness about human rights...........

Adil Jadoon Mar 03, 2016 07:49am

"We have to live with our family"??? I thought the family did not want to live with her as is quiet clear from what they did to her. The father is a weak and poor man, who will be judged for his crimes. Those who congratulate him on the murder have really no interest in his well being, but he is just too stupid to realize this.

Adil Jadoon Mar 03, 2016 07:50am

@Rashid Sultan I don't think you read the article correctly!

Adil Jadoon Mar 03, 2016 07:53am

The great champion of human rights and the purest man alive on earth is returning to Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari along with his son (who is somehow a Bhutto??) what else do we Pakistanis have to worry about. All shall be well. Rejoice, Rejoice.

x Mar 04, 2016 01:48am

@Rashid Sultan He said in clear words that a crime has been committed and that “no one holds the right to take someone else’s life” He did not say only that marrying someone of your choice is allowed he also said that no one has the right to take someone else's life. please read again.