Lost in the diversity controversy at the Oscars Sunday night was this: The only woman of color who won was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
Who? That’s the problem. Very few people in America know who she is. But they ought to.
Obaid-Chinoy, 37, has two Academy Awards to her name; her latest was in the best documentary short category for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a haunting portrayal of honor killings in Obaid-Chinoy’s ancestral Pakistan.
The film tells the story of Saba, 19, who is beaten, shot and tossed into a river because she eloped with a man her family rejected. Saba is a rare survivor of honor violence and Obaid-Chinoy’s film explores in the bleakest way the physical and emotional pain that so many women in that part of the world suffer.
“She wanted her story told,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a CBCinterview. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”
Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist turned documentarian, has focused her life’s work on social justice and feels compelled to expose wrongdoing in her homeland. Because, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“A Girl in the River” prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge that he would change a barbaric law that lets perpetrators of honor crimes go unprosecuted.
“”This is what happens when determined women get together,” she said with her golden statue in hand. “This week, the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”
Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her accolade to Saba and to all the women who helped her make the film and also to the men who champion women.
Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech was the most powerful Sunday night, though, ironically, it got drowned by the noise of diversity jokes and the buzz over Leo.
But she was the real stuff. Here was a brown Muslim woman totally rockin’ it. She hails from a part of the world where the most barbaric practices against women still exist, and that made Obaid-Chinoy’s win even more worthwhile.
Go, Sharmeen, I yelled in front of the TV. You make desi women proud.
Check out her work here: http://sharmeenobaidfilms.com/
Many years ago, I walked through the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, mesmerized that the history of mankind could be told through footwear — from caveman to Christian Laboutin. I was fascinated, given my penchant for shoes. (Yes, I have way too many.)
So when I stumbled upon the Tassen Museum Hendrikje in Amsterdam recently, I had to go in. Housed in a beautiful old building on Herengracht, the museum pays homage to, what else, handbags. It’s not as extensive as the shoe museum but tells a 500-year-history of handbags and purses in the Western world. Through bags, you get a good idea of how social norms changed for women.
And the museum shop is terrific if you are in the market for a good bag.
“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.
Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.
Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.
Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.
Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena on her birthday last year:
Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.
As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.
Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.
Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.
He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.
I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.
My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.
As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.
Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.
Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.
She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.
She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.
We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.
But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.
The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.
“All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.”
That’s what Pakistan’s constitution says. But the plight of women in Pakistan today is grim. Last year almost a thousand women were murdered in honor killings, according to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. The real number is feared to be much higher — many such killings are covered up by families.
Of the 943 cases documented by the commission’s staff, 93 were girls.
Here’s why these women and girls were killed by husbands, brothers, fathers. They were accused of illicit relations or they voiced a desire to marry a man of their own choice.
Before being killed, at least 19 women were raped, 12 of them gang-raped.
They were shot, bludgeoned and even strangled to death.
Only 20 of these women and girls were provided any medical aid before they died.
This is now. In Pakistan.
I don’t know the statistics for my native India or neighboring Afghanistan. But all three of these South Asian nations top the list for the worst countries in which to be a woman.
I was horrified to read the Pakistan report today. It probably won’t get much attention in the Western media. So I write this and ask you to think about how these women and girls lost their lives all in the name of saving a family’s honor.
Two people of note died this week without fanfare or blazing headlines.
The first was Mary Daly, a rip-roaring feminist who touched my life deeply when I was a student at Florida State University in the early 1980s. She came to speak there but would not take the podium unless the men in the room left. It caused an uproar, of course, because her trip had been funded with public money.
But I admired her courage for standing up for her beliefs. “You learn courage by couraging,” she said.
She said she was not interested in men. Rather, she wanted to study the capacities of women, repressed for centuries under male-dominated societies.
I didn’t agree with all of Mary Daly’s theories, but she inspired me to think outside the box.
Daly stuck to her principles all her life. At Boston University, the feminist theologian ended a stormy tenure by retiring rather than allowing men to sit in her classrooms.
Mary Daly was 81.
On the other side of the world, a man of a different sort of courage died of stomach cancer in a hospital in Nagasaki, Japan.
Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the only person officially recognized as having survived both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Yamaguchi was on a business trip to Hiroshima when he saw and felt the great white flash. Badly burned, he returned home to Nagasaki, where three days later, he witnessed horror again.
He, like may atom bomb survivors, suffered from health problems all his life. Still he lived to the ripe old age of 93 and in later years, he became a voice for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Some said Yamaguchi was the luckiest man on Earth to have survived two nuclear bombs. Others wondered if he was the unluckiest to have lived — and to have remembered.