Vancouver filmmaker Brishkay Ahmed tackles technology and women’s rights in Pakistan with 'Unveiled: The Kohistan Video Scandal'
In 2012, in a remote village in Pakistan, a cellphone video featuring four young women singing and clapping with two boys goes viral.
As it spreads, rumours swirl the girls have been killed, put to death by a council of male elders called a jirga who consider their actions shameful and against traditional values.
Haseeb Khawaja, an investigative journalist from Islamabad, travels north to the village to learn more about the case. Khawaja speaks to a local man about the video, who responds: “If there is any illicit contact between boys and girls and it is seen, then it is our custom to kill them.”
Vancouver filmmaker Brishkay Ahmed’s recent documentary, Unveiled: The Kohistan Video Scandal, documents the efforts of Khawaja and a group of activists to discover the fate of the young women.
It serves as a digital trail – a way to get justice and a fair hearing for the girls. Screened last month at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival on International Women’s Day, the documentary deals with topics like conservatism and women’s rights, while also addressing a changing reality: As technology becomes more widespread, nothing can be kept secret for long, including the oppression of women.
Ahmed has always been passionate about women’s rights. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, she left for India when she was five years old and lived there briefly before coming to Canada in 1988.
Journalist Haseeb Khawaja, DOP Imran Babur, sound recordist Mansoor Khadi and director Brishkay Ahmed on the streets of Islamabad. Photo courtesy Digital Warriors Production.
Unveiled wasn’t Ahmed’s first foray into tackling women’s rights in South Asia. Her previous documentary, Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan, deals with the role of the burqa in the lives of Afghan women and the garment’s origin in Afghanistan.
While Burqa is more historical, it touches on similar issues as Unveiled, mainly that women must be kept hidden from the public. “This is something that always irritated me,” Ahmed says, “Why should a woman disappear? Why shouldn’t she have the same rights?”
Ahmed initially studied journalism but found the traditional “two-minute, breaking news angle” wasn’t for her. She switched to film studies. “I thought I could mix film production with journalism and make documentaries,” she says. “That way I could expand on topics I’m passionate about. Documentary filmmaking allows you to have an opinion.”
While directing a television show in Afghanistan, one of Ahmed’s actresses came under fire for her social media presence and was forced to flee the country. Ahmed began researching the impact of technology on the lives of girls in South Asia and came across an organization in Pakistan that helps women with their digital rights.
The director of the group told her about the girls’ case and showed her the video. “I immediately fell in love with these girls because I thought they were so brave,” Ahmed says. “They knew their fundamental rights, which include the right to joy, love and music, and risked everything for that one night.” She shared the video with Vancouver-based Producer Elizabeth Sanchez, and they began production.
Ahmed believes the issues brought up in Unveiled are universally relevant. “No matter where in the world, I want people to know the girls’ names. I want them to remember Amina, Bhaziga, Sereen Jan and Begum Jan.”
A fifth girl, Shaheen Jan, was not featured in the video but was killed for participating.
Ahmed brings up a disturbing rise in sexism and misogyny, not just in South Asia but the West. She says it’s becoming more common for South Asian communities in Western countries to adopt this idea of “shame” and “honour” when it comes to women.
The fight for equal rights seems tougher than ever, but Ahmed is confident things are improving, especially in South Asia.
As technology stretches to remote regions and the international community becomes aware of oppression and the abuse of women, pressure intensifies on groups like the jirgas, making their leaders fearful of losing influence.
“I think change for the better is inevitable,” says Ahmed, “The jirgas’ power is weakening and their numbers are shrinking.”
The documentary points to a shift taking place among young people who are tired of these old customs and only follow them out of fear. Thanks to digital technology and social media, they’re becoming aware of how the rest of the world lives and are slowly speaking up.
What can we do as an international community to raise awareness about women’s rights? Ahmed says it’s time to start supporting the activists.
One of the most important parts of the film, which she says people may not pick up on, is how the female activists who fought to uncover the fate of the girls are treated.
“They’re played with, told to go here and there and purposely tricked. If international organizations start supporting women’s rights activists within Pakistan, the government can’t manipulate them anymore.”
Unveiled first screened in October 2016 at the National Press Club in Islamabad (South Asian Women’s Day) and had its world premiere at JAYU’s Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto in December 2016. It was also selected for the Censored Women’s Film Festival in New York.
“It’s 2017,” says Ahmed, “Years later and we still won't let this case go. We’re still on it. I want people to know that our world is not like it used to be. We are now a global community and we help each other.”