Saving Face: Documenting Pakistan's Acid Attack Victims

Ruksana told us that she was happily married with two children until she started having problems with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who then turned her husband against her. They held her down, threw acid on her and locked her up in her room.

In June 2011, Pakistan was ranked the third most dangerous place for women. The survey, conducted by TrustLaw, Reuters' legal news service found there were a series of factors threatening sections of the female population. 90% are said to suffer from domestic violence, but the use of acid attacks puts women at further risk.

Acid attacks are used as a form of violence in several countries including Cambodia, Thailand and Pakistan. In most cases the victims are women. The results of attacks are horrific; damaged skin tissue, exposure and dissolving of bones, permanent scarring and blindness. However, the number of deaths resulting from acid attacks is very low. Instead it is seen as a form of life punishment, a constant reminder; the victims can never fully recover physically or mentally.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Emmy award winning Pakistani documentary filmmaker, widely known for the documentary Pakistan: The Taliban Generation is currently working on a new documentary: Saving Face.

An inspirational woman, Obaid has a reputation of producing incredibly hard hitting and insightful documentaries from Pakistan to South Africa.

Saving Face, which has now been short listed for an Oscar nomination, follows the lives of both victims and British Pakistani plastic surgeon; Dr Jawad. The film tracks Dr Jawad as he travels back to his motherland in an attempt to bring some normality to victims of these heinous attacks. I caught up with Sharmeen to find out more about Saving face, and violence against women in Pakistan:

Can you tell me a little bit about the documentary you are currently working on Saving Face, what is it about?

Saving Face is the story of a British Pakistani doctor; Dr Jawad. He is the surgeon who performed the revolutionary plastic surgery on Katie Piper, a British model who had acid thrown on her. Mr Jawad heard that in Pakistan at least 100 acid attacks take place every year. He travelled back to Pakistan to see if he could help some of these women. It's the story of his journey to Pakistan, but it's also a story of two Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks and how they overcame obstacles in their lives.

Why did you decide to make the documentary, why is it important to you?

The idea to make a film about survivors of acid attacks was not mine. My co-director, Daniel Junge asked me to join his team when the project was in its initial stages. He thought it would be fascinating to see how Dr Jawad's revolutionary plastic surgery skills could be used in Pakistan. We wanted to show how Pakistanis help other Pakistanis.Our story shows the audience how a country's own people can help overcome problems. We hope the documentary will help people understand acid violence in Pakistan.

Why do people partake in acid attacks? What are the causes that drive people to commit such an act?

The reasons for acid violence vary; it could be as petty as an act of revenge when a marriage proposal is rejected or a more severe form of domestic abuse. During filming, we met a victim whose school teacher had made advances towards her. She refused him and so acid was thrown on her.

We met other married women who had had acid thrown on them because their husbands thought they were not good wives. The circumstances tend to vary extensively, though it is mostly men who attack women, such cases are most commonly found in the Saraiki belt of Pakistan. Communities in this region have the lowest levels of education and the highest levels of poverty in Pakistan. Acid is widely available, as it is a cotton growing region and acid is used to clean cotton.

Why do you think there's been an increase in acid attacks? Has this issue always existed or is it a new phenomena?

Perpetrators of acid violence were seldom taken to court and people knew that a law against such acts did not exist. They also knew that if convicted, they would only go to jail for a few years. Given the lack of accountability, and the fact that acid is affordable and widely available, it was seen as a viable way to permanently harm someone.

Pakistan now has a new law which has made this act punishable with life imprisonment. People have already been awarded this sentence, and so we hope that it will act as a deterrent for people in the future.

Are women involved in attacks against other women and why?

Yes, oftentimes older women who are victims of abuse become the perpetrators of violence. This concept is hard to fully comprehend because one would assume that women would set up a support system for other women, but due to the lack of education and exposure, women regard this as the norm. They have grown up witnessing acts like this, so they continue that cycle of violence. In many cases it is woman-on-woman violence, while in other cases women reach out to and help other women.

So the women are operating under a patriarchal system and they think it's the norm?

Yes, absolutely. However, one of the most incredible parts of Saving Face is the story of a female lawyer who takes on the acid case of Zakia pro bono, and wins! So it is also a story about how women who are empowered can help those who are not empowered.

For Pakistan, that is an incredibly fascinating realisation as you will find many educated, accomplished women who live in cities and have the resources to help women such as Zakia achieve a life that is similar to theirs. If they choose to do so, they can dramatically change their lives for the better.

Can you tell me of any particular case you found shocking, of any character that stood out to you?

Ruksana, one of my main characters had undeniably the most shocking story. Ruksana told us that she was happily married with two children until she started having problems with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who then turned her husband against her. They held her down, threw acid on her and locked her up in her room.

After that she chose to go back to her husband because of her children, as her family didn't have the funds to raise them on their own. When she went back to her husband, her mother-in-law took her children away from her and built a wall between her room and their house. She can see her children from the street, but she can never visit them.

Can you tell me a little about what is being done to help these women? Are there any projects in place?

Acid Survivors Foundation is working on a few projects, but most victims tend to go back to their families. It takes a life time of surgery to physically recover. Mr. Jawad told us that the hardest part is always managing expectations. Victims think that they will look exactly like they did before the attack, but that is simply unachievable.

Are other forms of violence being used against women, or is there a level of sensationalism involved?

Violence against women takes many forms. In a country of a 180 million people, there are a 100 cases of acid attacks every year, which is less then 0.001%. Domestic violence is rampant in towns, cities and villages and most men think it is acceptable. I've also met educated men who hit their wives. The other problem is lack of access to education. Thus, from the onset, half of the population is at a disadvantage and they are uneducated and are unaware of their rights. I would say three quarters of women in Pakistan don't even know that the law accords them equal rights.

Has your gender in anyway hindered your work in Pakistan? Have you ever felt threatened?

I've always felt there is a time and place for a person's end, I am a very fatalistic person. If I believed otherwise, I'd never be able to do the kind of work that I do.

My gender has always worked as an advantage in Pakistan because most men don't know how to deal with me. I do so many audacious things that many of them literally have their mouths hanging open in shock! I think they consider me to be like a man. I've always used that to my advantage whether I have worked with the militants or the army, or whether I worked in rural or urban areas.

What do you think the future holds for Pakistan?

Pakistan is much more conservative than it has ever been. We have experienced a population explosion, literacy rates are at an all time low while poverty and unemployment rates are at an all time high. You have a nation of 180 million people, in a country armed with nuclear weapons that cannot educate its own population. The irony is enormous!

The government has not invested in its population and the state is openly corrupt; the ingredients for disaster are all present and now it seems that someone is stirring the pot. Can we overcome all of this? Yes, but can we overcome this overnight? Absolutely not. The only way to do it is to invest in infrastructure and in your people, but the government of Pakistan is too busy investing in itself.

Saving Face is currently in post production and will be airing in the UK on More 4 and the U.S. on HBO in Spring 2012.


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