The South Asia Channel

Saving more than face

On the intersection of Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed Road and Club Road -- one of the busiest traffic lights in Karachi housing two high-end five-star hotels and the head office of the biggest English newspaper in the country -- I often ran into a beggar woman who almost no one looked directly in the eyes.

My mother without looking straight at her disintegrated acid-burnt face would nod her head and recite "Astaghfirullah," Arabic for "I ask Allah forgiveness," roll down the window and place whatever change she could find in her purse on the woman's palm. Our driver, Rustam, a 20-something from Swat, would nod his head for an entirely different reason. "They bring this upon themselves for money, madam. I assure you she makes more than you do at your newspaper," he would say without a hint of empathy. But even he flinched while catching a glimpse of her deformed face.

Throwing acid on women's faces is a form of terrorism that has, with time, become accepted as part of the background noise in Pakistan -- already ranked as the third-most dangerous country for women in the world due to a barrage of threats ranging from rape and violence to dismal healthcare and honor-killings. In Pakistan, the majority of acid-attack victims are women, perpetrated against by male counterparts including husbands, fathers, sons and other male relatives for reasons as trivial as domestic disagreements to more complicated issues such as bringing "dishonor" upon the family.    

Though no concrete numbers or statistics exist, independent women's rights and welfare organizations in the country have estimated that over 200 Pakistani women fall prey to acid-attacks every year because hydrochloric and sulfuric acid is widely and easily available and is very cheap. However, organizations that have used a more active method of data collection have yielded much higher rates. The Islamabad-based Progressive Women's Association has documented over 8000 deliberate acid-attacks on women just in and around the Pakistani capital of Islamabad over the past decade. Even though these attacks left their helpless female victims mutilated and scarred for life in a matter of seconds, only two per cent of the cases were successfully prosecuted in a court of law.

This not only highlights that this atrocious act of terrorism is at an all-time high in Pakistan but also how the misogyny that creates the climate for such acts can and does bleed over into the country's judicial system, which continues to fail to provide justice for the victims of acid-crimes, as the reported assailants are usually let go with minimal punishment.  

But there's hope, hopefully. Pakistani Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, internationally acclaimed for her 2009 film Pakistan: Children of the Taliban and the 2007 Channel 4 series Afghanistan Unveiled, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy just brought home her -- and Pakistan's -- first Academy Award. Her documentary short-film Saving Face revolves around the stories of two women - both acid-attack survivors making arduous attempts to bring their attackers to justice with the help of the groundbreaking charitable work of London-based, Pakistani-born plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad. Through the course of the short-film, Dr. Jawad strives to help these women put their horrific pasts behind them and move on with the rest of their lives.

Going on to make Oscar history by becoming the first Pakistani to win the coveted award, Chinoy and co-director Daniel Junge's Saving Face saved the day for Pakistanis both at home and abroad. The country's prime minister has announced the highest civilian award for the filmmaker for helping Pakistan make headlines for the right reasons, for a change, and for serving as a catalyst for social progress through her work.   

But amidst the fanfare, one cannot help but think how unfortunate it is that it took such a shameful subject to bring Pakistan its first Oscar, and whether this historical win and the resulting global limelight on the subject of acid-throwing in Pakistan will help bring this heinous act to an end. One cannot be certain but one can hope, for that is something this international acclaim brings for acid-victims in Pakistan fighting injustice for very many decades.

Encouragingly, efforts to fortify women's rights in Pakistan have been afoot even prior to this award. A few months back, the parliament of Pakistan adopted harsher penalties for perpetrators involved in acid crimes as the Senate passed the historical Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill along with the long-awaited Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill. Both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of the National Assembly of Pakistan, which itself is quite a mean feat for the women of Pakistan.   

The acid control bill sentences perpetrators of the crime a minimum of 14 years to a lifetime of imprisonment and levies fines of up to Rs 1 million [~$11,000]. The bill also enlists major steps to control the import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid to prevent misuse and promises acid-victims legal security.

Post-win, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her team are using their website to formally launch a movement to raise awareness about acid attacks to further strengthen this newly developed legislation against acid-crimes. Posting on their website, co-director Junge says the film must be "more than an expose of horrendous crimes, it must be a recipe for addressing the problem and a hope for the future."

Saving Face is set to air on American television in the first week of March, while Chinoy and Junge also plan to screen it in Pakistan, after figuring out "the best possible way to show the film while ensuring that the women in the film are safe," said Chinoy talking to a Pakistani newspaper.

The fight to eliminate acid-crime in Pakistan has only just begun. But with the Pakistani Senate passing two crucial bills before stepping into the new year and the recent Oscar win through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Saving Face, there is tremendous hope for the women of Pakistan and the country itself. By showing that there is a Pakistan with great potential, different from how it is generally perceived, through a short documentary, Chinoy has pulled this nation out of a blackhole of dejection -- even if for just this little while.

Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.

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