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“Dukhtar”: A Feminist Film on Forced Marriages and Gender Equity in Pakistan

A Pakistani mother’s determination to protect her child leads to a dramatic attempt to defy tradition.

A woman's hands decorated with henna. (Photo: Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Dukhtar (“Daughter”), directed by Afia Serena Nathaniel, Dukhtar Productions LLC, 93 minutes, 2014, in Urdu/Pashto with English subtitles. The film is expected to open in New York City and Los Angeles October 9.

Nearly a year after Dukhtar (“Daughter”) was submitted as Pakistan’s official entry into the 2014 Academy Awards competition for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie is finally coming to theaters in the United States. Directed by Afia Nathaniel, a US-trained, Pakistani-born filmmaker, the 93-minute motion picture contests the tradition of forced marriage by zooming in on one mother’s valiant efforts to repel expectations and protect her young daughter from a loveless union. It’s beautiful, powerful and unsettling, a feminist tale set against a backdrop of entrenched patriarchy and endless war.

It’s also visually stunning, with the snow-covered mountains of northern Pakistan, as well as the area’s many waterways and fields of colorful wildflowers, offering a stark contrast to the ugliness of competing warlords. These are men who seem to respond to every perceived – and imagined – slight with violence and are far quicker to pick up a gun than to talk or negotiate.

In fact, early in Dukhtar, two male rivals, Tor Gul and Daulat Khan, confront one another. Each heads a different tribe and it quickly becomes clear that they’ve been locked in competition for as long as anyone can remember. Dead bodies abound on both sides, but as Tor Gul shrugs, “We take an eye for an eye. It’s a matter of honor.”

That is, unless a strategic alliance can be arranged. And while the enmity between the two men is blatant, after a testy exchange, they determine that it is in their best interest to merge their separate factions into a joint unit. The glue? An arranged marriage between Daulat Khan’s 10-year-old daughter, Zainab, and Tor Gul, a man who looks to be on the far side of middle age. A handshake seals the deal.

Or so the patriarchs assume.

When Khan returns home and matter-of-factly tells his wife, Allah Rakhi, that Zainab will be given to Tor Gul on Friday of that week, there is no discussion. Allah Rakhi, who appears at least 30 years younger than her spouse, does not argue or express resistance. She simply nods and begins making preparations for the Nikkah and nuptial feast, sewing a bridal dress and unearthing the negligee that at least three previous generations of women in her family have worn on their wedding night.

But as the truism reminds us, still waters run deep, and while Allah Rakhi may not be openly defiant, she knows that she cannot allow her prepubescent daughter to marry Tor Gul. She, herself, was forced to marry at age 15, and she has never forgotten the pain of being yanked from her family home in Lahore and relocated to the remote village of Nishtar, hours from everyone and everything she had ever known. In the decade since she married Khan, he has not allowed her to make even a single phone call to her mother. Not surprisingly, the thought of losing Zainab sends Allah Rakhi into total panic. So what to do?

Zainab, a fifth-grade student, is too young to fully comprehend what is about to happen. She’s a kid – cute, rambunctious and wholly innocent – who still plays with dolls and has had absolutely no sex education. For her, the idea of marrying “her prince” is the stuff of fairy tales. Despite her parent’s joyless relationship, she holds fast to the idea of happily-ever-after and is oblivious to the realities that lie in wait for all child brides. Still, Allah Rakhi does not want to shatter Zainab’s illusions or scare her, so she allows Zainab to fantasize. After all, it is a few short days until Friday.

A bold denunciation of tit-for-tat retaliation, it also condemns sexist cultural norms.

Finally, the morning of the Nikkah dawns and Allah Rakhi makes a bold and seemingly spontaneous decision to grab her daughter and run. It’s rash, and perhaps ill-conceived. But desperate times call for desperate acts, and if ever there was a desperate moment, this is it. Viewers can almost hear Allah Rakhi’s heart pounding as she leads Zainab through Nishtar’s narrow alleyways, dusty streets and mountainous pathways to get away from Tor Gul and Daulat Khan. It’s a dizzying race against time and the tension is intense. As audience members, we want Allah Rakhi and Zainab to successfully escape, and we let out a silent cheer when they are eventually able to hitch a ride from a truck driver named Sohail Malik.

Although Sohail is initially reluctant to help the mother and child, once he grasps the magnitude of what Allah Rakhi has done – and why she has done it – he becomes a willing accomplice, along the way eliciting help from trusted friends. At the same time, his ability to drop everything to aid the pair seems unrealistic, leaving the nature of his actual work a mystery to viewers. This, however, is a small flaw in an otherwise engaging and compelling film.

As the three drive through remote areas of Pakistan, often camping under the open sky, their goal is to evade capture by either the jilted groom or the humiliated Daulat Khan. As you’d expect, there are more than a few close calls and Dukhtar brilliantly sustains the suspense, tension and drama of the situation. Throughout, numerous other themes come into play, among them love, loyalty, obedience, revenge and the need for self-realization. It’s a potent mix.

The acting in Dukhtar is uniformly superb, and each character succeeds in drawing the viewer in. That said, while Allah Rakhi, Sohail and Zainab are multi-dimensional, Tor Gul and Daulat Khan are not. Nonetheless, as exemplars of the endemic misogyny that filmmaker Nathaniel wants to expose, they are perfect.

All told, Dukhtar is a small window into a world few westerners get to see. A bold denunciation of tit-for-tat retaliation, it also condemns sexist cultural norms that grant women few options, as well as social policies that allow children to marry adults long before they are able to fully grasp what it means to be wed.

A press release announcing the opening of Dukhtar notes that although the script is a work of fiction, the story began to take shape in Afia Nathaniel’s mind after she read a news account about a Pakistani woman who ran away from tribal warlords to protect her two daughters from harm. As a women-centered plea for peace, respect and social justice, Dukhtar pays homage to this unnamed hero and those she has more-than-likely inspired.

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