An Interview with Sarah Jehaan Khan

Sarah Jehaan Khan received GITW’s GreenIS award in 2014 for her film Harvesting Hope. She currently lives in Islamabad, Pakistan and will be attending university in the fall.

Hi Sarah! In addition to submitting two films to Connecther’s Girls Impact the World Film Festival, you attend high school and speak at the Asia Development Bank. You’re at that exciting but heady time of possibility as you look forward to attending university. Have you decided what university to attend and what you will study?

Like a lot of people at my age, I haven’t decided on a major as yet, but I’m interested in subjects like Law, Environmental Studies and Theology. In fact, I recently got an offer from University of Cambridge to study Theology and Religion, which was quite exciting! Regardless of where or what I study, I’m certain I’ll continue my work with ‘Jugnoo’ and hopefully my college education will allow me to do so more effectively.

You are both a filmmaker and advocate. Were you an advocate that became a filmmaker or a filmmaker who became an advocate?

I’d say the former, because I’ve always enjoyed writing more than filmmaking. But for the kind of issues I wanted to highlight, my primary concern was conveying the stories of the women and girls as effectively as possible. After meeting all the girls who are in my films, I felt I had a responsibility to have their voices heard on platforms where real change could take place regarding their problems, and film was the most powerful medium of doing so, since it retained the rawness of the original stories. It was that human element which eventually moved policy-makers in Asia to take measures to take steps to restrict the activities which posed serious threats to the health of women and girls. I didn’t even have any formal training in filmmaking but the fact that the Girls Impact the World Film Festival focused more on content than form, made me less apprehensive about making my first film.

I saw you met Cara Delevingne recently. Your mom recently received an award from Diane von Furstenberg for her work as a documentary filmmaker. You’ve gotten the opportunity to be around a lot of iconic women - your mom included! What have you learned from her and others about being a female leader?

Some of my favorite memories from childhood are of traveling to remote areas of Pakistan with my mother. She had to make these trips for her filming work and in the process I learnt so much from the women she worked with, and I got the chance to experience Pakistan’s vibrant spectrum of cultures and people. I met women who lived in conditions no one deserves to live in, but I also came to know of the kinds of solutions they were constantly coming up with to deal with their problems. At 15, I met cotton pickers who worked in toxic conditions because of the synthetic pesticides, and yet the same girls were probably the most optimistic individuals I had ever met. They had rashes on their arms, but those rashes were covered with bright bangles; they had bruises where the chemicals inflamed their skin but they had smiles on their faces. Just that contrast between their dismal circumstances and their outlook towards life redefined the word ‘resilience’ for me. I’ve grown up around women like my mother or human rights activist Tahira Abdullah. So speaking up about these issues never really seemed like a choice to me after watching the kind of bold steps these ladies took to address women’s issues. More recently I met with Cara Delevingne, and Diane von Furstenberg who had remarkable stories to tell, and I really value the experiences of interacting with and learning from them as well.

I know you are very proud to be from Pakistan (your flag purse last year at GITW!). The way you live your life is proof, but how else do you go about challenging stereotypes and re-telling stories about Pakistan?

When I make films, I make sure to highlight solutions addressing the issue at hand. To make progress and provide more women and girls with the opportunities they deserve, we’ll need to focus more on telling stories of the ones who are innovating, creating, and fueling hope. For example, not only do the women whom I met in Chakwal use rainwater harvesting as a solution to the global water crisis, they also urge the rest of the world to follow in their footsteps and their sustainable methods! There’s so much to learn from Pakistani women and their indigenous methods. We face problems as a nation, but it is crucial to highlight the countless stories of hope and SOLUTIONS rather than continuing to lament the problems.

Connecther supports the work of women in their own communities. It seems obvious that you, as a Pakistani woman, would be uniquely suited to meet the needs and tell the stories of women and girls in your community, but why else do you think it’s important to help empower local leaders?

That’s one of my favorite things about Connecther; the kind of priority it gives to empowering local leaders. Over the course of the last 3 years I’ve realized how much more effective projects become when they’re carried out by local leaders. In my case, having lived in Pakistan, I can understand the cultural nuances, traditions and languages, all of which allows me to carry out my work with the trust of the people. Having their trust and support is crucial. An issue of lack of sanitation in a Pakistani village, for example, can only be resolved locally, and by local leaders who understand the local context, cultural sensitivities and so on; however, if this leader has global best practices and partnerships informing him/her, then that can really catalyse the process!

How can the Connecther community support your work?

I recently started a series of eco-workshops for women in Pakistan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the project receive a $5000 donation on its Connecther page. I probably wouldn’t have been able to manage collecting those funds on my own, and definitely not with the same ease. I’m glad Connecther gives other projects like mine that kind of a platform and I’m proud to be associated with the Connecther community and hope we can continue to reach out to more women in Pakistan - together, whether it’s through films or workshops!

[Interview by Constance Dykhuizen]