Photo credit: HBO
By Nicholas Kristof
Whether it wins or not, the Oscar nominee with the greatest impact — saving lives of perhaps thousands of girls — may be one you’ve never heard of.
It stars not Leonardo DiCaprio but a real-life 19-year-old Pakistani woman named Saba Qaiser. Her odyssey began when she fell in love against her family’s wishes and ran off to marry her boyfriend. Hours after the marriage, her father and uncle sweet-talked her into their car and took her to a spot along a riverbank to murder her for her defiance — an “honor killing.”
First they beat Saba, then her uncle held her as her own father pointed a pistol at her head and pulled the trigger. Blood spewed, Saba collapsed and her father and uncle packed her body into a large sack and threw it into the river to sink. They then drove away, thinking they had restored the family’s good name.
Incredibly, Saba was unconscious but alive. She had jerked her head as the gun went off, and the bullet tore through the left side of her face but didn’t kill her. The river water revived her, and she clawed her way out of the sack and crawled onto land. She staggered toward a gasoline station, and someone called for help.
About every 90 minutes, an honor killing unfolds somewhere in the world, usually in a Muslim country. Pakistan alone has more than 1,000 a year, and the killers often go unpunished.
Watching the documentary about Saba, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” I kept thinking that just as in the 19th century the central moral challenge for the world was slavery, and in the 20th century it was totalitarianism, in this century the foremost moral issue is the abuse and oppression that is the lot of so many women and girls around the world.
I don’t know whether “A Girl in the River” will win an Oscar in its category, short subject documentary, but it is already making a difference. Citing the film, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has promised to change the country’s laws so as to crack down on honor killings.
Saba’s story underscores how the existing law lets people literally get away with murder when honor is the excuse. After doctors saved Saba’s life — as police officers guarded the door so her father didn’t return to finish the job — she was determined to prosecute her father and uncle.
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