In Pakistan, just talking about rape and sexual violence is a cultural taboo. But bringing a case through the Pakistani courts and discerning truth from fiction is dangerous, complicated and, and as filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann learned, fraught with challenges.
When 13-year-old Kainat Soomro accused four men of gang rape, she risked everything: her reputation, her education and even her life.
In Pakistan, just talking about rape and sexual violence is a cultural taboo. But bringing a case through the Pakistani courts and discerning truth from fiction is dangerous, complicated and, and as filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann learned, fraught with challenges. The two spent nearly four years probing Kainat's story as she took on the men she says raped her — as well as of her alleged rapists' quest to clear their names. Here, Nosheen and Schellmann discuss how the course of their investigation took dramatic and unexpected turns, revealing a deeply flawed justice system and the people it serves on both sides. Their film Outlawed in Pakistan airs Tuesday on FRONTLINE,
Who Is Kainat Soomro and what made you want to tell this story?
Hilke: The film is about Kainat Soomro, a Pakistani teenager who says she was gang raped by four men. We've been following her story for years as she took her case to the courts, and we also followed her alleged rapists.
While we were doing the story, we also uncovered more systematic problems in the Pakistani criminal justice system: a lack of police investigation and a lack of DNA evidence that could have helped her or other alleged rape victims, as well as those trying to clear their names.
Habiba: … What ends up happening in Pakistan due to the lack of investigation is [the case becomes] a he-said vs. she-said situation. When the case goes to court, you have a woman's word against a man's, and there's no way to decipher the truth from fiction.
For example, a simple DNA test could have solved this case years ago, and that wasn't done in this case. You can get to the truth a lot quicker if you have the proper evidence collected in a proper way and investigated in a way that speeds up the process of a legal rape case.
What's the environment in Pakistan when it comes to talking about rape and sexual violence?
Habiba: I think it's still a big taboo in Pakistan for a woman to admit that she's been raped, and often she's not believed. When a woman does speak up about rape, one of the biggest accusations that she faces is that she's doing this to either get attention or, more importantly, to get a visa to go abroad. That is the accusation you hear again and again when people talk about Kainat or when people talk about about other women who have brought up cases of rape. That's because their argument is, "Why else would a woman do this? It's so shameful that she would be talking about these things that are so inappropriate for a woman to be talking about. She's clearly only doing this to get a visa." …
People were confused that we came all the way to Pakistan to follow a rape case. That seemed to them not a priority for journalists, and I think that follows the priority that Pakistan places on rape. It's also not a place where resources go to investigate rape or assistance for rape victims.
You've been working on this for nearly four years. What made Kainat's story stand out to you, and why follow it for so long?
Hilke: We went to Pakistan together because we wanted to tell stories of interesting women. Pakistan is ranked the second lowest in the World Economic Forum's global gender index, and we wanted to find stories of women who are maybe going against stereotypes and pushing some of these boundaries of what is expected of them as women.
We followed Kainat and two other women, and over time it just became clear that her story was so gut-wrenching and so many developments happened during in her court case – which we don't want to spoil the film here — that we just started focusing in on her. …
To be honest, we were also struck by a teenager who was that outspoken and determined.
Habiba: There's something special about the way she's been able to be so public about an issue that's such a taboo in Pakistan, and that you don't see often in Pakistan, I think. That struck us that's interesting and fascinating.
Hilke: And we heard it time and time again from people that Kainat is really pushing the boundaries by speaking out publicly. Even the attorney for the four accused men — who believes his clients are innocent — said that he thinks she's a strong woman for taking on this battle so publicly. …
The women's organization that we talked to, her lawyer, they all say, we have been living in Pakistan for decades, and this wouldn't have been possible two or three, or even one decade ago that a woman would go on TV and be able to say that she was raped and she wasn't at fault, and that is progress.
What were some of the constraints of making this film?
Habiba: Initially, budget. It was just the two of us for a long period of time taking our personal savings and a camera and running off to Pakistan. We were assisted by some journalism grants, but that just covers expenses. We were doing this for free on all of our vacation time. During family wedding time, I would go to Pakistan and I would take Hilke with me and we'd try and film. We were two independent filmmakers going on an adventure, unsure of whether anyone would ever see this film we were funding out of pocket.
Hilke: We'd constantly ask ourselves that, even when we were back in the editing room. We knew we had a great story, but we wondered, does anybody care about an alleged rape victim and the systematic problem of rape cases in Pakistan? Will anybody ever care? So we're really grateful that FRONTLINE and ITVS got on board and told us that yes, there is an interest in this.
Habiba: Beyond funding, it was this really interesting journey where we were juggling pregnancies — at one point 75 percent of our staff was pregnant — the dangers of being in and out of Pakistan and making sure the story is as balanced as we can make it.
But also, one of the biggest challenges is that this is a very complicated court case with a lot of different perspectives. Everybody has a different story of what happened to Kainat Soomro, so deciphering truth from fiction as a journalist, when we don't have the documents to go to help you get some clarity, was hard.
You're asking the most basic questions because there is no credible paper trail that you could simply follow, and you take that for granted in the U.S. For example, here, if you want to verify a marriage, you call up where two people were married. But as a Pakistani, I know that documents can be forged in certain places, so you have to look at everything with a bit of suspicion because you know the reality that just because there's a document to vouch for something doesn't mean that it actually happened. That's tough as a journalist, because usually documents are our friend, but when you strip us away from that, it's really hard to know what's true and what's not true.