Shehzad Hameed on his quest to change perception of Pakistani women through films

Source:  Unique Pakistan Published in Current Affairs on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Here at the Malala Fund, we are big fans of both women AND men standing with Malala for girls’ education. That’s why we’re excited for you to meet Shehzad Hameed Ahmad, a young Pakistani director who is changing perception around Pakistani women through film. Interview by Malaka Gharib, Malala Fund.

In March, Channel News Asia released ” Flight of the Falcons,” a documentary that follows the struggle of girls in Pakistan whose parents refuse to send them to school – and local education champions who are fighting for their education. It’s an eye-opening account of the cultural barriers, including child marriage, that stop so many girls in Pakistan from going to school.

Watch Now: Flight of the Falcons Documentary

The film centers around the story of Sister Zeph, an incredible female educator who empowers Pakistani girls through education. She started a two-room school in her tiny town of the Punjab province, home to more than half of Pakistan’s out-of-school children.

Sister Zeph. Photo credit: Shehzad Hameed Ahmad.

We reached out to Shehzad Hameed Ahmad, the film’s director, to see what inspired him to make the documentary and learn about some of the challenges he faced in telling Sister Zeph and her girl students’ stories.

Based in Islamabad, Pakistan, the 29-year-old Fulbright scholar is passionate about creating films that put the spotlight on Pakistani women and girls. Before “Flight of the Falcons,” he directed “The Pakistan Four,” an award-winning documentary that profiles four Pakistani-American women in the hopes of changing public perception of Pakistani Muslim women.

In our interview, we discuss what’s really helping Pakistani girls go to school, what it was like to talk to parents who didn’t believe in girls’ education, and why Pakistani men need to stand up for girls.

Malaka: How did you find out about Sister Zeph? Her story is amazing!

Shehzad: I began filming this documentary around eight months ago when I came across a Facebook page, created and run by Sister Zeph, which she used to highlight the achievements of her two-room school in Aroop, Gujranwala.

Since the attack on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, I was always interested in making a documentary on Pakistan’s battle against illiteracy in general, and girls education in particular in order to highlight the various issues that have resulted in 25 million out-of-school children in the country.

This figure came as a brutal shock to me since it is the second highest out-of-school population in the world!

In your documentary, “Flight of the Falcons,” we see both moms and dads turn down the offer for free education for their girls, which was extremely frustrating to watch. As a filmmaker, watching this unfold in front of you, how did this make you feel?

A father’s response when asked, “Does education harm girls?”

Obviously, it was frustrating to find parents reacting in such a way to Sister Zeph’s work to begin with – but as time passed on and I spent more time with these families, I had to look at it from a distance, more objectively. No person is born in this world with such ideas. It is their situations, environment and the culture they live in which makes them who they are.

Whenever I start judging somebody, I just think of myself being born in their shoes, being born in a little village in rural Pakistan and then imagine, if I would do the same things or not. And usually, the answer is yes. Which is why I don’t blame individuals for their myopic views.

Instead, I blame the frustrating cultural traditions, the system, that results in people thinking in a particular way who are afraid to let go off their tribal culture to be exact. Lack of education has forced people to just close the outside world to themselves and their communities, so they can stay put with centuries old traditions because they feel safe in them.

New ideas are quickly rejected as a result. Education is the only solution.

Watch Now: Flight of the Falcons Documentary

From your experience making the documentary, what do you think adolescent girls in Pakistan really need to continue their education? What is actually helping them continue?

Girls in Pakistan, especially the rural areas, need heroes like Sister Zeph who can act as a catalyst towards change and inspire people in thinking differently who can then gather resources to implement their vision. If we had a Sister Zeph in every village of Pakistan, this country can progress within the next few years.

Girls need someone to believe in them, give them confidence, and which is the same for boys I believe. Once they have these basic ingredients, Pakistani girls can conquer the world.

The worst thing that has happened in Pakistan is that there are very few heroes to look up to for young girls. I’m glad that Malala has become an inspiration for millions of girls not just in Pakistan, but for women across the globe.

With people like Malala coming forward, the world is definitely heading in the right direction. But so much more needs to be done.

What are you working on next?

I’m researching about an all-female Jirga (community council) that has sprung up in none other than Malala’s very own Swat Valley. Its interesting because this is the first time a women-only Jirga has come into being that aims to resolve issues relating to women. In other parts of the country, most rural community councils are all male-dominated and are unable to comprehend issues regarding women comprehensively for obvious reasons.

Do you have anything to share with Malala’s supporters?

Keep the support coming for Malala! I think I’ve made a point as a Pakistani man through my work that men need to support women rather than limiting women in the four walls of their home.

I hope men in Pakistan change their thinking towards women as well. Also, I think we all need to better understand Pakistan, which I believe is one of most misunderstood places in the world.

An accurate definition would be that it is a land of contradictions that produces a courageous girl such as Malala and at the same time, produced a coward who attacked her.

People should visit Pakistan and that is when real change would occur. Academics, filmmakers, artists, actors, singers, archeologists, mountain-trekkers should start interacting with young Pakistanis so that both can learn from each other. That is essential if the world has to progress in equal measure.