Samar Minallah Khan
The practice of swara, wherein girls are given as compensation to end disputes—from murder to property quarrels—had been practiced openly and legally in Pakistan for generations. In 2003, Samar Minallah Khan, a Pakistani Pashtun documentary filmmaker, freelance journalist, human rights activist, and anthropologist created a documentary on swara to raise the profile of the custom and persuade policymakers to recognize the problem and eliminate it.
As a direct result of Samar’s campaign, the practice of swara was made illegal in 2004. Once the legislation was passed, Samar set out to ensure it was implemented. She filed a Public Interest Litigation against the custom in Pakistan’s Supreme Court, and launched an awareness campaign that engaged citizens, non-government and government alike. As a result, more than 50 girls were rescued from different parts of Pakistan.
Her high profile work and courageous fight to abolish traditionally harmful practices has led to numerous death threats. In 2006, she infuriated the Taliban by releasing a video of the lashing of a 17 year old girl in Kabal. Despite these threats to herself and her family— Samar is married and has two children— she has steadfastly continued to fight to end of violence against women and girls.
For Samar, silence is not an option. Through Ethnomedia, a non-governmental media initiative she founded, she uses advocacy, documentaries, and other forms of media to open the eyes of civil society, policymakers, and human rights activists to culturally-sanctioned forms of violence. She has tackled issues such as human trafficking, dowry, acid crimes, child domestic labor and forced marriage.
Her strategies are innovative. In addition to award-winning documentary films, she has written and produced a music video featuring a renowned Pakistani artist that was the first pushtu/dari lullaby dedicated to daughters. Whatever the medium, Samar’s stories are human, relatable, and culturally appropriate, produced in regional languages and screened locally to engage all levels of society. Samar thus brings unseen images, untold stories and seldom heard voices to public attention—catalyzing political engagement, challenging the status quo, and irrevocably changing the conversation about women and girls in Pakistan.
“When we see her courage, and her refusal to be intimidated, then the rest of us feel that we must carry on, too,” fellow Pakistani human rights activist Tahira Abdullah has said of Samar. As a Pakistani woman who leverages her talent for documentary filmmaking into a tool for advocacy and empowerment, Samar blazes a trail in decidedly uncharted territory in order to give women in her country a voice.