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‘We Aren’t Free—We Are Limited to Hiding Behind Veils’

Jun 03, 2019 | 772 videos
Video by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Pakistan is routinely ranked as the third most dangerous country in the world for women. One in three married Pakistani women reports facing physical violence from her husband (although informal estimates are much higher); thousands of women are murdered each year by family members in “honor killings”; many more are tortured, mutilated, and abused inside their own homes. Child marriage, a long-held norm in the country, remains a serious concern. More than half of the women respondents in one province surveyed by the Bureau of Statistics believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife under certain circumstances. These attitudes, the agency claims, are not much different in the rest of the country.


Women’s suffering isn’t relegated to the domestic sphere. In society, women are treated as second-class citizens. Female literacy rates are among the lowest in the world. For women who do work, discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace are rampant. An estimated 11 million children are currently engaged in forced labor, at least 40 percent of them young girls.


Three brave women—Tabassum Adnan, a former child bride; Saima Sharif, an elite police officer; and Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a labor activist—are among those fighting against inequality in Pakistan, despite the magnitude of risk. The Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who is Pakistani, interweaves their stories in her short documentary Freedom Fighters, produced by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The film is harrowing as it shines a light on the experiences of these women and those with whom they work on a daily basis.


“For 20 years, I put up with all sorts of abuse. I felt imprisoned every moment,” says Adnan, the former child bride, who escaped her situation of domestic abuse but paid a hefty price for her freedom. “If only I had been able to experience my childhood or gotten the chance to enjoy my teenage years,” she continues wistfully. “But I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.”


In Lahore, Fatima leads a covert operation to expose grievous human-rights violations perpetrated by the brick-kiln industry. Over the past 27 years, she estimates that she has freed more than 80,000 slaves from bonded labor, many of them women and children.


Sharif, meanwhile, is a commando in the Pakistan Elite Force, which began accepting female recruits in 2014. Despite the violence and discrimination she has endured, Sharif is determined to become a beacon of inner strength for Pakistani women who hope to join the workforce. “Women and men are equal,” she says. “I will be an example for everyone.”


In an interview with The New Yorker, Obaid-Chinoy said that anger was an appropriate and necessary response to her documentary work, which focuses on women’s rights in Pakistan. “I need enough people who watch my stuff to be moved, and to be angry, and to do something about it,” she said.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.