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Have Women's Rights Evolved In Pakistan?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we head to Detroit, where an official task with paying off the city's massive debt has his eye on works in the city's famous art institute. We'll find out how that's going over in just a few minutes.

But, first, we head to Pakistan, where elections were just held and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif regained power. Now, you've probably noticed that the country's tumultuous politics are often in the news, but a few years ago, a teenaged girl made headlines by taking the unusual step of accusing four men of raping her. And instead of quietly accepting it or letting village elders settle the matter, she and her family demanded that the matter be investigated by authorities and tried in court.

Filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann have been following the story of Kainat Soomro for the last four years. Their film is called "Outlawed in Pakistan" and it airs on the PBS series, "Frontline," tonight. An earlier version of the film appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, but the two later went back to Pakistan to do additional reporting for this version and they're with us now.


HABIBA NOSHEEN: Oh, thank you for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that this is a very disturbing story that we're talking about, so this conversation may not be suitable for all listeners. So, with that being said, I just wanted to start by asking, how did you get interested in this? I think a lot of people will remember the story of a young woman in India that caused a lot of international attention and a lot of local demonstrations when she was so viciously gang-raped that she died from her internal injuries.

But this matter precedes this by some time. How did you hear about this?

NOSHEEN: We first heard about Kainat Soomro through the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. We were in the country looking for stories and women who we wanted to profile and follow over a long period of time. That was our commitment from the very beginning when we headed to Pakistan that we didn't want to just come in and interview somebody and then leave. We wanted to follow the journey of women who identified as, you know, someone who's challenging the system in whatever way that might exist.

And we heard from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that there's a girl named Kainat Soomro and she has an interesting story to tell and you might want to meet with her and that's, you know - that's how we first met Kainat.

MARTIN: And that was Habiba. And when you first heard her story, did you believe it?

HILKE SCHELLMANN: This is Hilke. So we are, first and foremost, investigative journalists and we really - it's really important for us to report a story without taking any sides and so we made sure that we wanted to get the other side and talk to the alleged rapist, as well, because we highlight in the film - through the personal story of Kainat and the alleged rapist - you sort of get a sense what the systematic problems are in Pakistan and how the system is failing men and women when it comes to alleged sex crimes in the country when the cases even go to court.

There's rarely DNA testing. You know, the police isn't trained to gather forensic evidence. In Kainat's case, we can safely say that the police investigation was extremely challenged and, you know, we know from the court records - and Habiba spoke to the police investigator - that he believed that she was a liar from the beginning. And he went to one of the places where she was allegedly gang-raped, found the house locked, and never returned.

So we wanted to show those systematic problems that women face when they say they were raped in Pakistan.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, Kainat has her own attorney, although, presumably, the legal system is the same in Pakistan where the prosecutor is supposed to actually be making her case for her, but she does have counsel who accompanies her to court and this is what he has to say about how rape cases, generally, are tried in Pakistan, not just hers.

FAISAL SIDDIQUI: There is not a single rape case I've done in Pakistan which doesn't have massive rules. And the reason for that is very simple. There is never any oral evidence. The evidence which is there - the police does not have the ability to collect that evidence. They can't even secure a crime scene.

MARTIN: And not only that, but one of the points that the film makes - and this is something that I know people have criticized about in other countries, including this one, as well - is that there's a general sort of environment that's hostile to a complainant and you interview the defense counsel, Waqar Shah, describing how he cross-examined Kainat and here he is.

WAQAR SHAH: On the one hand, there was expert person in a witness box, a village girl. There was no comparison at all. Our system demands so.

MARTIN: What are they talking about? When they talk about a difficult cross-examination, what are they talking about?

NOSHEEN: Waqar Shah, who is the attorney of the accused, asks, you know, when Kainat was put on the stand. You know, he talked in length about how he interrogated her and in ways and in - as you see in the film - and in words and in language that's not something that's very pleasant for any rape victim or alleged rape victim to go through. And that's the process that I think follows Kainat, not just in court, but also outside court. People don't believe her and the kind of language that's used in her testimony and in her cross-examination by - including the lawyer for the accused - it sort of extends beyond that to also how she's treated in Pakistan as a woman who's brought on these charges, because the common sort of perception of Kainat is - well, why would any woman ever publicly speak about having been raped unless she's a shameful woman? So that's the kind of demeanor that's used against her when people speak to her often.

MARTIN: But you also make the point in the film. The lawyer who agrees to accompany her to court, says that he looked at it the other way. Why would a person put herself through all that if she wasn't telling the truth? And her family - because the point the film makes - you've met her. She's already - the family's already moved to Karachi because they have faced threats.

What's the answer to that? I mean, because as the film makes clear, it wasn't just an individual decision. Her entire family had to leave their home because of threats and in order to press her case.

NOSHEEN: You know, you have stereotypes of Pakistani men that we see in the media, but you also - this is a prime example of men who do step up and support Kainat in helping her tell her story. From the very beginning when we met them, this is how the family has sort of been united and I think that's where she gets her courage from.

MARTIN: How is she doing now? I mean, we - unfortunately, we can't get away from the fact that - and I apologize - this is a spoiler. Her case is not successful. She does not prevail and, after going through this for such a long period of time, it has to be very distressing, assuming that she is telling the truth, that her version of events is correct and not that of the accused, who say, as you just pointed out, that they, in fact, were married and that her parents rejected the marriage and that's why she made the complaint of rape. How is she and how is her family?

SCHELLMANN: The family continues to fight the case. And what you see in the film is a continuous struggle that they don't give up and they don't plan on giving up and that sort of is still current for Kainat and her family. They're taking this - even before a verdict, it was very clear to both parties when we spoke to them that they assumed this case is going to go all the way to the Supreme Court. So I don't think it was a surprise that the family is appealing the case because it was always a perception that whoever loses in this case, the decision will ultimately go all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

NOSHEEN: And it almost seems like the more obstacle Kainat and her family face, they actually get closer together and they keep fighting.

MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from this film?

SCHELLMANN: I think, if there's a take-away, if we can shed any light on a bigger issue, which is that you have a system that doesn't put enough resources in investigating rape crimes in Pakistan. And because of the lack of evidence that's collected in rape cases, you have a he said, she said system when a case does go to trial. And it's frustrating to watch because it could be easily solved with the new science and technology that we have accessible around the world. I mean, it shouldn't be that difficult to have done a DNA test that this case, which now, you know, has drawn out for years and consumed not only the life of Kainat Soomro, but also the four accused men.

This could be easily resolved with DNA testing. And that, we hope, sheds light on a larger failure on the part of the system where those resources are just not available to sort out fact from fiction.

MARTIN: The final question would be, you know, as we mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, there have been a number of cases recently in India. There's one that particularly comes to mind, you know, under horrific circumstances, but that's not the only one where women or their family members have come forward to demand justice for them under the legal system in a manner that, you know, the film makes clear would not have always been the case. And I was just wondering, based on your reporting and your travels, why you think it is that now more women are willing to come forward.

NOSHEEN: As a Pakistani, you know, I was born in Pakistan and I grew up there for the first part of my life and I've definitely, you know, seen a sort of involvement of - the women's rights in Pakistan have definitely evolved, as they have in other parts of the world, which leads me to think that there is hope at the end that - yes - we - as a Pakistani society, it's moving very slowly and I think that's why it's so important to have conversations like we're having in this film about what's failing women, but I think it's undeniable that there is a shift in conversations that just didn't exist and, partly, I would say it's to do with the fact that Pakistani media is a lot more vibrant than it was, you know, 20 years ago and there are a lot more opportunities for women to be speaking up. And it is - women definitely in Pakistan are challenging the status quo and I think that this film and Kainat's story represents that.

MARTIN: Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann are filmmakers behind "Outlawed in Pakistan." The film is scheduled to air tonight on PBS's "Frontline." You'll want to check your local listings for the exact times. They were both with us from member station WGBH in Boston.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

NOSHEEN: Thank you so much, Michel.

SCHELLMANN: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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