“Outlawed in Pakistan”: A Powerful Look at Violence Against Women

FRONTLINE is one of my favorite shows to watch on television. Their documentaries are thoughtful and available to watch indefinitely online in the United States. In addition to airing documentaries, they have a fantastic online presence and provide additional commentary, interviews, and chats for each of their shows to further engage with viewers. I watched The Interrupters in 2012 for Muslimah Media Watch, when it aired under FRONTLINE in the United States. You can still watch that film online.

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I recently watched Outlawed in Pakistan, which aired on FRONTLINE in May of this year. Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman’s documentary follows the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Kainat Sumroo as she brings her gang rape case to court in Pakistan. The film portrays the systematic challenges of bringing a rape case to trial in Pakistan and includes commentary from a variety of people related to the case: her supportive family, attorney, women’s rights organizations in Pakistan, and even those accused of the crime. The filmmakers traveled to Pakistan to film the documentary over the past four years.

Scene from Outlawed in Pakistan. [Source].

Sumroo’s resolve for justice is astonishing. The trial is emotionally taxing, both for herself and her extended family as they move from a village home to a smaller apartment in Karachi. In the city and with the case underway, her older brother is found murdered. The film notes that the custom in response to rape is often for the victim’s own family member to murder victims—a stance that her family never takes.

Sumroo alternates between two statements throughout the film: that her life is now ruined and that she must find justice. Sumroo uses the term barbad in Urdu, which to me means something much deeper than “ruin”—devastated seems a more apt translation to describe the threats she faces, her family’s economic challenges as a result of bringing the trial to court, and the societal shunning from those around her. Throughout the film, her family wholeheartedly believes in her innocence and supports her decision to bring the case to court.

In addition to watching the documentary online, the website also includes several excellent related articles. In Azmat Khan’s FRONTLINE interview with Nosheen and Schellman, Schellman relays how they decided to tell Sumroo’s story:

“We went to Pakistan together because we wanted to tell stories of interesting women. Pakistan is ranked the second lowest in the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, and we wanted to find stories of women who are maybe going against stereotypes and pushing some of these boundaries of what is expected of them as women.”

It’s a fascinating interview with the filmmakers, as they discuss their experience of reporting in Pakistan as women, how to help (support local organizations that focus on victims of rape—as journalists they feel it is not their place to recommend Pakistani organizations), and one of their hopes for what people might takeaway from watching the film: that there is much more nuance to Pakistani men and women than stereotypical representations portray. There are supportive individuals—men and women both— in victims’ lives, there are victims who bravely challenge the difficult situations they find themselves in with the support of their loved ones, and the victims are real human beings whose individual stories are far more complicated than a simple narrative of brown men violating women.

UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index: Guess where your country stands?  Credit: United Nations Development Program.

Another related article on the FRONTLINE website by Sarah Childress reminds viewers of how sadly prevalent violence against women is not only in Pakistan, but around the world. One measure Childress includes is the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index—an index that finds that there is “no country with perfect gender equality.” By being exposed to this well-researched position alongside the documentary, viewers may come away with a more holistic understanding of how violence and rape affect women everywhere, not only women in countries far from their own.

Outlawed is a memorable film—its portrayal of Sumroo’s life and her decision to bring her case to court in Pakistan will stay with me for a long time. The stories behind the film that FRONTLINE features online, from the filmmakers’ perspectives to the understanding that violence against women is a much larger problem that is faced around the world, rounds out the entire learning experience.

You can watch Outlawed in Pakistan in the United States online at FRONTLINE’s website


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