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Dukhtar: Award-Winning Film Highlights Struggle of Pakistani Women

In the wild, wild East, in the tribal “badlands” between Pakistan and Muslim India, few girls or women willingly risk being honor killed for refusing an arranged marriage or for wanting to leave an exceptionally violent husband.

Women do not usually run away in search of freedom. No one will help them. It is their own families who are after them—and women are viewed as the property of their families. Whoever dares help a runaway, allegedly “disobedient” women immediately becomes prey as well.

This is precisely what happens in Afia Serena Nathaniel’s very beautiful, very gripping, and very tragic film: Dukhtar (Daughter). The award-winning film, which opens in New York October 9th and in Los Angeles on October 16th, is a road-trip thriller about a heroic Pakistani mother, Allah Rakhi, who risks almost certain death in an attempt to spare her ten-year-old daughter, Zainab, from having to marry a tribal warlord old enough to be her grandfather; Zainab’s own father, Daulat Khan, has arranged this in order to end a blood feud.

The film is thrilling and fast-paced. It is like a fable or a folk tale, fraught with forbidden potential romance and ever-present danger. However, despite exceptions such as Samia Sarwar, Mukhtar Bibi, and Malala Yousefzai, our heroine, however inspiring, is fictional and does not represent your average Urdu or Pashto-speaking tribal woman.

On the contrary.

Shockingly, in a new study of mine, just out in Middle East Quarterly, I found that female accomplices play an essential role in such family conspiracies and the minority of mothers who personally and physically play a hands-on role in murdering their daughters, also tend to commit torture-murders. Equally significant: Worldwide, the accomplices are arrested significantly less often than the male or female hands-on perpetrators.

While there are an amazing number of feminists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are also a far larger number of women who have internalized the values of a shame and honor culture and function as enforcers—as a matter of survival.

Like men, women internalize tribal shame-and-honor codes. The honor killing family views their crime as one of “self-defense.” Had they not murdered the girl, no one would marry their other children. They would be shunned both socially and economically. And, this is all true.

Honor killings—family-of-origin conspiracies to kill a “disobedient” daughter or wife—are very common among Pakistanis, both at home and in the West. The disobedience can range from “looking at a boy on a motorbike” to wanting a divorce from a more-violent-than-usual first cousin. The fictional ten-year-old, Zainab, believes that if “you look at a boy you get pregnant.” Absolutely no freedom of choice in terms of a marriage mate is allowed. A woman’s virginity and fertility are resources that belong to her family and tribe, not the woman.

Tribal councils in Pakistan consider honor killing justifiable; mostly, the local police turn a blind eye. If ever questioned, families say: “She is missing, “she ran away,” or “she killed herself.” In Pakistan, honor killing is sometimes used as a pretext for other crimes. According to Muhammad Haroon Bahlkani, an officer in the Community Development Department in Sindh, Pakistan, a “man can murder another man for unrelated reasons, kill one of his own female relatives, and then credibly blame his first victim for dishonoring the second. Or he can simply kill one of his female relatives, accuse someone rich of involvement with her, and extract financial compensation in exchange for forgoing vengeance.” Bahlkani has a name for this: the “Honor Killing Industry.”

In Pakistan, many honor killings are known as karo-kari killings, which literally means “black male” and “black female” in Urdu and refers to cases in which adulterers are killed together. However, according to Bahlkani, there is an escape clause, but only for the men who can run away, hide, or pay restitution. Women are confined to the home, and few people will shelter a female runaway.

The film challenges this reality by imagining a rebel: A mother who loves her daughter enough to risk being killed for violating the honor codes; a daughter who loves her mother enough to risk being killed for running away from her father’s house. Finally, in Dukhtar, a former (and very soulful) mujahid, Soheil, is initially duped into rescuing both mother and daughter but over time he actively decides to protect them.

Clearly, his character has come a long way.

Allah Rakhi is an inspiring heroine—and a surprising one too. She is illiterate, and was herself subjected to an arranged marriage to a much older man when she was fifteen years old. The film reverses reality—and challenges tribal imagination by portraying three generations of spirited heroines and woman-loving women: Allah Rakhi, her daughter, and her daughter’s maternal grandmother.

The filmmaker was inspired by a story of a Pakistani mother who once kidnapped her two daughters to ensure a better future for them. It took ten years for Nathaniel to write, produce, and direct this amazing film; she shot it in 30 days, working 12-14 hours a day, “under freezing conditions mostly in the disputed territory between Pakistan and India.” There were also “bomb blasts and sectarian killings” along their route as well as “extreme weather conditions and warlord threats.” The film is unique in many ways: It is a unique co-production between the United States and Pakistan and one directed by a woman with a 40 man crew.

The acting is superb (thank you Samia Mumtaz, Mohib Mirza, and Saleha Aref) and the cinematography breath-taking. Cinematographers Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami capture the awesome and treacherous beauty of the South Asian mountains, narrow mountain passes—and the sheer grandeur of the sky.

Watch the trailer for Dukhtar below:

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