“Saving Face” May be a Saving Grace for Women Victims of Acid Attacks

“Saving Face” May be a Saving Grace for Women Victims of Acid Attacks February 27, 2012

Update: This film won the Oscar for its category. Congratulations to those involved in its creation!

For the first time in the history of the Academy Awards a Pakistani filmmaker has been nominated for an Oscar. The 2012 Oscar’s “Best Documentary Short” category features a 40 minute short film by journalist and investigative filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. Image via India Today.

Ms. Chinoy is known for making hard-hitting documentaries such as Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret and Pakistan: The Taliban Generation. This year, her Oscar-contending film is a documentary, titled Saving Face, which tells the stories of two female survivors of acid attacks.

The women are 39-year-old Zakia and 25-year-old Rukhsana. Zakia’s husband threw acid on her after she filed for divorce, and Rukhsana’s husband and in-laws threw acid and gasoline on her and then set her on fire, simply because her husband didn’t want to hear her speak anymore. Despite the trauma they have faced, the women enlist the help of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Islamabad, as well as sympathetic policymakers, in an attempt to bring their assailants to justice by pushing the Pakistani government to enact new legislation that imposes stricter sentencing of perpetrators of acid attacks.

The film also follows Dr. Muhammad Jawad, a Pakistani-Born, London-based plastic surgeon, as he journeys back to Pakistan to perform reconstructive surgery on these two women. Dr. Mohammad Jawad returns to his home country to volunteer his skills and assist victims of what he calls his society’s “disease.”

Acid burn attacks, prevalent in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, are just what they sound like. The victims, usually women, are doused or sprayed in the face with acid, resulting in permanent physical and emotional injury. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, which aims to eradicate the practice in Bangladesh, acid attacks are a gender specific crime resulting primarily from disputes regarding dowries, land, property, money, marriage, and sex. The organization estimates that from January to October of 2010, in Bangladesh alone, there were 118 victims of acid violence. According to ASF statistics, victims tend to be females from 25 to 34 years old, although there are some cases of male and children victims.

Ms. Chinoy has said of the attacks:

“The minute I saw the image of the first woman with her face completely melted off, I was enraged. In most of my films, the topics are centered around my rage, you know, me being angry about something that’s taking place in society, and this was something that was horrifying, beyond horrifying. To have a single act of throwing acid ruins a woman’s life completely, and she has to live with that, and look at herself in the mirror every day and that becomes her reality. And I wanted to capture that for people to realize how terrible this is.”

A predicament not limited to the East, acid attacks have even been reported in areas such as, Bresles, France; Mesa, Arizona; and Vancouver, Washington. The 2008 case of London model Katie Piper, who was attacked by a jealous boyfriend,  is perhaps the most well-document and publicized instance of an acid attack, inspiring a documentary called Katie Pieper: My Beautiful Face.

On May 10, 2011, the Lower House of the Pakistani Parliament voted to have perpetrators of this crime face life sentences. During the documentary we learn that Zakia’s husband is convicted of the assault and given two life sentences, becoming the first person to be sentenced under Pakistan’s stronger new law. Unless, however, there is widespread awareness of this practice, global human rights activists fear that even with newly enforced laws the attacks will continue to go on unreported and ignored as they typically have in the past.

Ms. Chinoy’s documentary and its wide exposure, which will certainly be helped by this year’s Oscar nomination, will hopefully raise some more awareness of the practice. The grisly visuals and heartbreaking stories of wives attacked at home by their husbands or in front of a courthouse while seeking a divorce are not received without this hope. Dr. Muhammad Jawad says in an interview with the in an interview with the Huffington Post:

“This is a story of hope and courage. The real heroes of course are these two patients we feature, who’ve been so forthcoming in such a conservative society to take it on the neck and say: ‘this cannot carry on.’ In a way this was about me saving my own face, and owning up to my responsibility to the country of my origin.”

The documentary is set to premiere on HBO on March 8 at 8:30 PM PT.


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