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Saving Face for Pakistan

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Mar 16 2012 (IPS) - By winning an Oscar at this year’s Academy awards, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has brought home the genius of Pakistan’s women as well as the extreme violence they often suffer in a male-dominated society.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Credit: Bina Khan/IPS.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Credit: Bina Khan/IPS.

Chinoy’s documentary ‘Saving Face’ deals with the struggles of the victims of disfiguring acid attacks, both to win justice for themselves and to save others from one of the worst forms of violence against women.

Valerie Khan, who heads the Acid Survivor Foundation (ASF), told IPS that the film brought a “message of pride and hope” to the many victims of acid attacks and projected “their struggle more than the issue.”

ASF has, since it began its work in 2006, provided medical, psychosocial, socio-economic and legal aid to about 160 acid survivors and has also recorded 700 attacks.

The film has “reactivated the pride of Pakistan as a country that can do wonders and also mobilised women, policy makers, stakeholders and Pakistani citizens to act in a synergetic and democratic manner to eradicate a phenomenon that has no place in an Islamic republic,” Khan said.

“Other countries can learn from this success story,” said Khan, adding that while acid violence was a global phenomenon many countries, including India, have “not even taken the first necessary steps to tackle the issue.”

The film tells the stories of acid attack survivors as well as the struggle of civil society and women politicians to get a law that criminalises acid attacks passed in Pakistan’s parliament in December 2011.

Naila Farhat, 22, and Rukhsana Yasir, 26, the real heroines of ‘Saving Face’, told IPS that it was not easy to go public with their gruesome stories.

“Finding the courage to come in front of the camera, showing our disfigurement to the world and telling our tales has not been easy,” Farhat said.

“But if this can save other women from the hell we have been through, and are still going through, it is a small price to pay for this kind of stardom,” she said.

Unlike other victims of acid attacks, Farhat took her case to the Supreme Court where Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, heard the story of how she was scarred with acid by a teacher for spurning his advances.

Farhat was among a group of six acid victims who had gathered at the ASF shelter on Feb. 26 to watch the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, California, on TV. Several of them had figured in the film.

“The room at the shelter was filled with shrieks of happiness as we saw Sharmeen walking gracefully up the stage and receiving the statuette,” said Farhat. “There were tears of joy as we hugged each other.”

Chinoy told the world: “Daniel (Junge, her co-director) and I want to dedicate this award to all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan… Rukhsana and Zakia who are our main subjects in the film, whose resilience and bravery in the face of such adversity is admirable. And, to all the women of Pakistan who are working for change, don’t give up on your dreams. This is for you.”

“I’m very happy for Sharmeen,” Yasir, told IPS over phone from Islamabad. In 2009, Yasir’s husband had thrown acid on her during an altercation. “My eyes and nose were saved but the acid seared my mouth, neck and the front of my body,” she said. “My lips cannot close.”

Yet, this mother of three has gone back to live with her husband.

“What I liked about Sharmeen was that she was not only good-natured, but she actually came and hugged you,” said Yasir. “Few people find the courage to come near us, let alone touch us.”

On Dec. 13, 2011, the upper house of parliament passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2011 that punishes the throwing of acid at women with a maximum of 14 years in jail and a minimum fine of one million Pakistani rupees (11,000 dollars).

Acid throwing is now a non-bailable crime with the possibility of an out-of-court settlement precluded, but for the campaigners the fight is not over. Khan says the bill is inadequate and demands that the state support survivors with legal aid and rehabilitation.

She also wants to see tight regulation in the sale and distribution of acid. “To date, highly concentrated sulphuric and hydrochloric acids are available for as little as 54 cents and anyone can buy them with no check, tracing and limitation of any kind.”

Also passed on Dec. 13, 2011 was a bill aimed at protecting women from barbaric customs like forced marriages, child marriages and denial of inheritance.

Other bills passed recently cover prevention of domestic violence, sexual harassment at the workplace, a fund for women in distress and the giving of financial and administrative autonomy to the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW). Nasreen Azhar, a member of the NCSW, thinks it is indeed a “big deal” to have so many pro-women bills passed by the present government in the last four years, six of them in the last two.

Azhar says attitudes have changed since the day in 1999 when Saima Sarwar was killed by a gunman hired by her family in the chamber of her attorneys, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, while seeking divorce from her husband.

“A group of us went to the Senate, then in session, and asked the senators to move a resolution condemning the incident,” recalls Azhar. “The senators refused saying Sarwar was killed in accordance with age-old tribal customs which they could not oppose.”

In contrast, the present national assembly voted unanimously in favour of the pro-women bills.

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  • Limetree

    What is the point of the law and law makers if they cannot establish and implement laws against age-old tribal customs that harm people. Non-opposition of tribal customs make the law and law makers ineffectual and impotent.

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