The most significant aspect of Samar Minallah Khan’s work for female empowerment is inclusivity. Samar, anthropologist, filmmaker, operates within the system to strip it of its regressive, toxic, harmful dynamics that affect the lives of countless children, teenagers, and adults, especially female. Using various forms of art—filmmaking, painting, and music—Samar, without raising her voice or fists, compels the architects, perpetrators, and enablers of systemic patriarchy to take a second and a third and a sixth and a tenth look at the damage inflicted on the psyche, hearts, and bodies of females, of all ages, across Pakistan.
A restructuring is not a demolition in Samar’s world. Her profound empathy is the keyword for her one-on-one dialogues and, eventually, a collective discourse with all the stakeholders of a particular set-up. Focusing on the betterment of victims and survivors, Samar also ensures, in her work, the inclusion of those who make the rules—parental, communal, societal. Female empowerment in a deeply patriarchal society, roots of which are entrenched in fiercely protected cultural mores, sanctioned at times by misinterpreted injunctions of religion, is not possible if it is turned into a war of sexes, a battle of egos.
Misogyny, one of the rotten foundations of a male-dominated system, cannot and should not be replaced with misandry. Equality of sexes is the only way to be. And that change begins at home before it takes a larger shape. Fully understanding and accepting that no real, long lasting, sustained change is possible without the involvement of all sides, and in particular, of the rule makers of a family, Samar, mother of a daughter, twenty-four, and a son, twenty-nine, ensures that her female empowerment work is inclusive of positive male participation.
In a January 2012 interview to Pakistan’s Newsline, Samar talking about her filmmaking process made a comment that is still relevant, “I’m not plugging an agenda, nor am I out to appease an international audience. My audience is the local people, especially those who appear in the documentaries themselves. Because of this my work is more rewarding.” As a Pakhtun woman, Samar’s work is mostly with people whose language she speaks and whose culture she has a deep personal understanding of. In the same interview she said, “I make documentaries that are culturally sensitive so that they can be screened in the rural areas.”
With degrees in anthropology and development from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, and Cambridge University, UK, Samar channelized her earlier “angry” stances into constructive rebuilding of narratives, be it through her films or her truck artwork. Her younger years activism and feminism metamorphosed into her passion for doing something about the painful wrongs she saw around her. Her first documentary “Swara—A Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, in 2003, focused on “vani”, an abhorrent social and moral crime, with a cultural sanction, against females.
In 2004, Section 310-A of the Pakistan Penal Code was enacted, stipulating a rigorous punishment for “giving of females in marriage as part of a compromise to settle a dispute between two families or clans; punishment may extend to ten years but shall not be less than three years.”
Samar’s very special, very personal work is changing lives, one day at a time. The several awards she has received, nationally and on global forums, are a sparkling manifestation of the impact and importance of her work.
For advocacy against compensation marriages: Challenging Patriarchal Mindset Award by National Commission of the Status of Women, Government of Pakistan, 2010; Vital Voices Fern Holland Award 2012; Civic Courage Award, Center for Civic Education Pakistan, 2010; Women Have Wings Courage Award 2010; Global Leadership Award, 2015; Perdita Huston Human Rights Award 2010.
For girl child empowerment through truck artwork: Secretary General’s Innovation for Sustainable Development Award 2021, UK; Gold Cube at the ADC Annual Awards, New York; London International Award 2019; Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity; Silver and eight Bronze trophies, Busan, South Korea.
For documentary films: Best Short Film Nordic International Film Festival 2021; Eva Haller Women Transforming Media Award 2021; Jury Award, Global Voices Film Festival; Best Short Film, Toronto Women International Film Festival 2021; Best Foreign Language Short Film, Moscow-Russian International Film Festival; Female Filmmaker Award, Emberlight International Film Festival 2021; Best Director, The Sofie 7th Annual Awards 2021; Winner, My Hero International Film Festival 2021; Best Film Sport Film Festival, Rotterdam, 2021.
With her work, Samar does not provoke a conflict that widens differences. With her work Samar evokes a dialogue that unites to produce affirmative action.
For Gulf News, I asked Samar Minallah Khan a few questions:
Mehr Tarar: Your work, fundamentally, is about raising awareness about the issues that affect the lives of the voiceless, faceless Pakistani female. What was the principal motivation behind your attention to girl and women rights, which are primarily and eventually, simply human rights?
Samar Minallah Khan: We tend to read and interpret women’s rights only from a western perspective. While working with women and girls in the rural areas of Pakistan, inequality and lack of discussion around certain taboo subjects always made me uncomfortable. I had to find a way to speak about and raise awareness around such issues that were close to my heart. This I wanted to do in a sensitive yet a relatable way, and thus, I started making films in regional languages so that I was able to share them with audiences that are themselves linked with these issues.
Swara—Da Zhwand Mairman, your 2003 Pashto documentary, highlighted the horror of “vani”, “compensation marriage”—the very title is deeply sexist, horrific. Did a particular incident disturb you or was it the overall existence of a highly regressive tradition in not just Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in many areas of Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan?
Swara, my first documentary was part of my research on the practice of handing over minor girls in compensation to end disputes. As with other women rights violations, I thought there was denial around the issue. I had to find the answers myself by interviewing local masharaan (elders), religious scholars, and of course women and girls who were victims of the practice. I met an eleven-year-old girl and her mother in Matta in Swat district, who opened their hearts to me. That, for me, was a turning point. I had to amplify their voices through film.
Similarly, in the Kachha area of Pannu Aqil in Sindh, I met another young child who had stopped playing with her friends because they would make fun of her for becoming a victim of “sang chatti”. In both the cases, the minor girls were being forced into marriages to older men to end a murder dispute. When one comes across such children it is hard not to be moved to do something about it.
You received the Commonwealth Innovation Award for your extraordinary truck artwork, which I consider a national movement for girl rights. What was the idea behind using Pakistan’s truck art for dissemination of your message?
I have always been fascinated by our country’s vibrant truck art. However, the portraits behind the trucks were mostly of politicians, generals, or Hollywood stars. I reached out to truck owners and artists in Peshawar to collaborate with them in changing the portraits with happy, empowered girls. We used trucks as moving billboards to spread awareness around the right to education, right to play, right to inheritance and other important issues. To my surprise, they owned the idea.
With the Ministry for Human Rights under Dr Shireen Mazari, we got more than forty trucks painted with important messages and started a helpline. These trucks continue to move across Pakistan, spreading awareness. Messages like “Mujhay sona chandi nahin, kitab aur kalam do” [Do not give me gold silver, give me a book and a pen] were written on the back of trucks with painted images of girls.
Last year, you released your video “Sar Buland”, a song with the artist Ali Hamza, which contextualizes the importance of male participation in changing the ethos of female rights in Pakistan. Do you think music has the power to go beyond the entertainment aspect to have a lasting effect on changing backward and misogynistic societal attitudes?
“Sar Buland” was a song dedicated to men who stand up for the women of their families and challenge the patriarchal mindset that girls are a “bojh” or a burden in our society. The concept of “Sar Buland” needs to be associated with girls rather than this society’s obsession with associating “honour” to what girls and women do and wear.
This video was launched at the President House by the Ministry for Human Rights on the International Women’s Day. This is my fifth song video. I feel music has the power to touch peoples’ hearts and impact mindsets in a way that goes beyond the entertainment aspect. I made another video, “Allaho: A Lullaby for You My Daughter”. It is the first Pashtu-Dari lullaby dedicated only to daughters.
Recently, your latest film Outswing was awarded the Best Documentary Award at the DESIiblitz Film Fusion Festival Birmingham 2022. This film has won more than twenty international awards, a spectacular achievement. Cricket, displaced Pakhtun girls, and a male cricket coach, the three words that in one context are an unexplored territory in Pakistan. What is the story of your Outswing?
Outswing is a film that shows how playing sports is such a daunting endeavour for girls in Pakistan. Cricket for these girls is life changing, life transforming. It gives them a breathing space, a break from their everyday challenges. The most inspiring part was to witness a male cricket coach’s struggle for their right to play. A coach who treated them as sportspersons who ought to dream big. He did his best to support the players in whatever way he could, seeing in each of them the potential of becoming a champion.