Pakistani journalists win top prizes for women's empowerment, religious freedom films

"These brave women promoting interfaith harmony are risking their lives for the survival of humanity," rights leader says •

 Zeenat Bibi, producer and director of "She Stood Against Religious Extremism." (photo credit: ZEENAT BIBI)
Zeenat Bibi, producer and director of "She Stood Against Religious Extremism."
(photo credit: ZEENAT BIBI)

A female Pakistani journalist won the grand prize in the 2022 Women’s Empowerment and Religious Freedom Film Competition.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

Zeenat Bibi produced and directed She Stood Against Religious Extremism, a short film that tells the true story of a young woman in a terrorism-ravaged region of Pakistan “who starts an initiative to counter religious extremism and sectarian violence by holding dialogue sessions with youth from different beliefs and religions.”

The competition explored how inclusivity and multifaith living empowers women and leads to prosperous communities.

Bibi’s award-winning film was showcased at the fifth annual Religious Freedom Film Competition in Washington last week, sponsored by Empower Women Media in association with the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.

Bibi, 30, is based in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Peshawar is the largest Pashtun-majority city in the country. Situated in the broad valley east of the historic Khyber Pass, Peshawar is close to the border with Afghanistan.

In the last two decades, Peshawar has witnessed an escalation of terrorism, suicide bombing, and sectarian violence. It takes a great deal of courage to advocate interfaith harmony in such a place. 

Bibi's early life

Bibi’s father works for a government organization and her mother is a housewife. 

“I was born in Wah Cantt [Wah Cantonment in Punjab Province] and I am the only child of my parents,” Bibi told The Media Line.

“After obtaining a master’s degree in mass communication, about 13 years ago I started to work with mainstream media in Islamabad. My key focus always remained on women, children, transgender community, and minorities-related issues. I felt during the reporting that our MSM [mainstream media] always remains reluctant to highlight such issues and they are given very little space,” she added.

Bibi is also the founder of Genderlens.pk, the country’s first woman-led digital news platform covering issues faced by women, religious minorities, and youth. 

Move to Peshawar, marriage and religiuous studies

Eventually, she moved to Peshawar for work, where she married Atta Ullah Khan, a journalist.

“My husband is supporting me the most after my parents. Being a mother of two kids, doing housekeeping, and then fulfilling journalistic responsibilities is a very difficult duty, but I have the full support of my husband,” she said.

“For most of the last 20 years my province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially Peshawar city, has been a hotbed of terrorism and religious extremism, with the genocide of minorities at the forefront,” Bibi noted.

“Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs have been living peacefully in our city for centuries and have a close brotherhood with the Muslims. Unfortunately, a wave of extremism arose that fueled detestation of these people.”

“I have studied almost every major religion in the world, and every religion, including Islam, teaches humanity, respect, and harmony, so I decided to convey this lesson to our young generation [in an effort] to eliminate extremism and to promote harmony,” she said.

“Promoting interfaith harmony is the theme of my short film. I will continue my mission with energy and determination,” Bibi said.

"Promoting interfaith harmony is the theme of my short film. I will continue my mission with energy and determination"

Zeenat Bibi, Pakistani journalist and award-winning producer and director
 Zeenat Bibi, producer and director of ''She Stood Against Religious Extremism.'' (credit: ZEENAT BIBI) Zeenat Bibi, producer and director of ''She Stood Against Religious Extremism.'' (credit: ZEENAT BIBI)

Khan, who is assistant director of information at the provincial government’s Directorate General of Information and Public Relations, told The Media Line, “Being a working couple in a male-dominated society is always hard, but to promote equality we have to embrace and pass through hard times to create aspirations and encourage women’s empowerment. We want to contribute something to society,” he added. 

Khan noted that “after marriage, most of our men put a halt to their wife’s career. They impose various bans in the name of societal norms, customs, and traditions.”

He added, however, “From the day first I tried to encourage and empower my wife, Zeenat Bibi, so that she can decide on her own. I always supported her equipping herself with technical skills.

“She is a miraculous lady; she handles both kids and at the same time also manages her professional life as well. I am confident that she can lead the family at any stage of life,” Khan said.

Empower Women Media

Empower Women Media, based in Washington and Los Angeles, is a nongovernmental organization that enables networking, training, and collaborative media projects to promote women’s empowerment and peace building.

The film competition entries came from 30 women who took part in Empower Women Media’s Pakistan Media Training Fellowship program. For six months, they learned about “Freedom of Religion or Belief” and received expert training on producing contextualized digital media to reach their communities.

Shirin Taber, executive director of Empower Women Media, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview, “Our organization equips individuals and organizations as human rights advocates using the power of digital media strategies.

“As a network, we freely offer media training, online certificate courses, and an annual film festival to counter religious persecution. The films are judged by our partners who work with the United Nations and the State Department,” she said.

“Zeenat represents the next generation of women social entrepreneurs and content producers,” Taber said. “We are very grateful for her courage to produce an artistic film that clearly illustrates the need to counter religious persecution and promote interfaith harmony in Pakistan.

“Zeenat is the face of young people who desire to build social movements that promote peace, women’s empowerment and multifaith living in South Asia,” she added. “The world needs more front-runners like Zeenat who use the power of digital media to share empowering stories that shift attitudes toward respecting everyone’s human dignity.

“Together, we can say ‘no’ to religious-based violence and stand up for everyone’s religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and belief,” Taber said. 

Khalida Niaz, who also hails from Peshawar, took the 1st runner-up prize in the competition with her film Peace Promoters.

Peace Promoters tells the story of a young woman in Peshawar who counters religious-based violence by building relationships among faith influencers.

Without Fear, a film by Eleni Spiru from the US, was awarded the 2nd runner-up prize. 

It depicts a “Pakistani American woman and her struggles to escape oppression and fight for religious freedom.”

Durre Shahwar, the Lahore-based chief operating officer of the All Pakistan Women’s Association, told The Media Line, “No doubt Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, but about 9 million others, mainly Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, also live here. Due to these diverse beliefs, interfaith harmony, reconciliation, and peace are very important issues in Pakistan.

“I pay tribute to Zeenat Bibi and all those women who are working to promote interfaith harmony. These brave women are risking their lives for the survival of humanity,” Shahwar said. 

“It is evident from the past that women who participated in the peace process have more consensus and focus toward improving the lives of other humans with dignity and respect,” she said.

“It is important to give women breathing space in interfaith harmony processes and to extend efforts toward achieving progress to end gender imbalance,” she continued.

“Involving women and young people to promote interfaith harmony and implement tolerance, acceptance, and peaceful coexistence proves to be beneficial for a peace-loving and prosperous society,” Shahwar said.