Farkhanda Shaheen, the dynamic TV producer and documentarian working for Pakistan Television (PTV) and a well-educated, progressive woman, is famous for her work related to women’s issues and women’s rights. Her documentaries about the various issues that we all know so well today – child marriages, bonded labor, acid victims, honor killings – were among the first in the history of Pakistani television.
She has a special place in her heart for women’s issues and rights because she has been there and seen it all. She has been in vanguard for highlighting the issues of women and has fought for and produced the first ever television show on women’s issues in 1995 called “Havva Ke Naam.” This was a significant moment for television because no work had ever been done before to expose the plight of Pakistani women. Most were unaware of the atrocities and violence that was so prevalent in parts of the country. It truly set itself apart from anything else that had been aired before.
Another notable show she contributed to was “Seher hone ko hai.” This show explored women and child issues that had never really been spoken of so openly before, like the very real practice of biased nourishment of the female child in rural households. She remembers how much opposition both she and the program received when it was aired and it had come from most unexpected quarters – the male members of Pakistan’s educated class.
Unfortunately, this continued to be a somewhat common feature with male colleagues and employees at PTV scoffing, and even laughing, at these efforts to show people the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Pakistani women. Family friends said that they wouldn’t allow these programs to be watched in their homes. She received warnings of more alarming nature as threats were issued to throw acid on her face because she was trying to “free women” through her TV show. Despite facing many obstacles, Shaheen smiled as she remembered how many women thanked and appreciated these efforts. Many well known names like Asma Jehangir and Nafeesa Shah came forward and offered their time and support to the show.
It has been nearly 20 years since the first TV program on women’s issues was aired; and when asked if she believed that there had been a change in the circumstances of Pakistani women, she replied, “Women have still not been given equal rights as citizens. Empowered, educated women are a very small percentage in Pakistan. There is a long road ahead to any progress which needs great dedication and huge amounts of hard work.” She reiterated this point several times and felt the acute lack of any concrete movement forward in women’s rights. Shaheen believes that “awareness has risen, women are finally aware of some of their rights but what has also risen is the knowledge of the full scope of the violence against them.” She feels that though anti harassment legislation has been passed in Pakistan, there has been little to no change in the mindset of the majority of men who are not ready to give women their rightful status.
Farkhanda Shaheen believes that the privileged members of society carry a bigger weight of social responsibility and that it is their duty to help the less fortunate around them. She has gone above and beyond many a time when such a situation has arisen. She recalled how a young teenage girl, Rabia*, stayed with them for her own protection after she had been kidnapped and gang raped by a group of policemen. Shaheen stated how her own husband had greatly helped and supported both her and Rabia during that difficult time as the case presented before the court and the girl stayed in their home and became a member of their own family. She believes that there is a great need to “start a support system that will bring a change at the grassroots level. We see how effective it has been in other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and India who see similar kinds of violence against women.”
Shaheen is famous for her honest, gritty and moving documentaries on a variety of issues. Her documentaries are screened by the American Embassy and some are often dubbed in English and shown around the world. She has advice for all potential and young film makers and documentarians, “These subjects are all around us. Sensitivity and in-depth research is vital. We have the responsibility of telling the story impartially, unaffected by our own biases and expectations.”