‘Silent Waters’
By Sabiha Sumar
3rd Annual South Asia Human Rights Film & Video Festival
Opens April 7, New York City“Silent Waters,” a film by Sabiha Sumar (in Punjabi with English subtitles), is set in 1979 Pakistan, when General Zia-ul-Haq took control of the country and stoked the fires of Islamic nationalism.

Ayesha, a Muslim woman who gets by on her late husband’s pension and by teaching young girls the Koran, invests her hopes in her son Saleem. But when Saleem takes up with a group of Islamic fundamentalists just as a group of Sikh pilgrims come to town, Ayesha’s haunted past turns her present life upside down.

The film is based on actual events that took place when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, under the sway of British colonialism, into two new states — India and Pakistan. In pre-partition Punjab, Muslims and Sikhs had lived side-by-side, but during the partition men from both sides of the religious divide slaughtered each other.

Each looted the other’s property, which included their respective women: little distinction was made between robbing cattle and abducting women.

The women were raped, bought, sold and, sometimes, murdered; some ended up marrying their abductors. From the women’s point of view, they also faced danger from males within their own families. Their fathers, brothers or husbands forced them to commit suicide to preserve chastity and protect family and community honor.

The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslims in India and 33,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. But it is feared that the actual number was much higher.

“In 1996, I started researching the idea of violence against women during the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and found a reference to abducted women along the borders of Punjab and Bengal,” director Sabiha Sumar said.

“I tried to locate women in the walled city of Lahore who may have suffered violence during partition, but the issue of abducted women met with stony silence. How does a women reconcile herself to a life, not of her choice, not of her making, a life that began in violence? She simply had no say in her future.”

She felt the violation of a woman abducted, who has to live in a country not of her choice, compelled to convert to the religion of her abductor and bear his children.

“I think what drew me to these stories was that I could completely empathize with the intense vulnerability of women,” Sumar said.

“I thought of abducted or captive women in Bosnia and Kosovo and earlier of tragedies of Jewish women in war-torn Europe. I instinctively felt this fear.” Ayesha represents a woman caught in a conflict and as such she represents a universal dilemma, according to Sumar.

“She is the woman in Bosnia, in Sri Lanka, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. … And it is really through her that I found a voice to express my deepest fears about religious/political intolerance, not only in Pakistan but also around the world — think of Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ or Bush’s ‘Clash of Civilizations.’”

The director’s first documentary, “Who Will Cast the First Stone?” was about the protest of working-class women against the imposition of Islamic law in Pakistan in 1979. As film culture grows in Pakistan, Sumar hopes a wider audience will see her work. Today, however, in Pakistan it is restricted to private viewing or small screenings organized by women’s groups or cultural institutes.

“This decline was caused by General Zia’s martial law, which killed the culture of cinema, and his hard censorship policies destroyed the small commercial film industry,” she said.

“Things seem to be changing for the better on the commercial film scene but it will still take a long time for any alternative cinema to take the roots in the country.”

crummel @ pww.org