Saving Face: A Conversation with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Posted on 17 March 2012

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Janis Mackey Frayer, South Asia Bureau Chief | CTV News | Thursday Mar. 8, 2012

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the Oscar for best documentary short for ‘Saving Face’ during the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

In 2009, I watched Saira Liaqat in the doorway of the tiny house in Lahore that she shared with her parents because no man was likely to have her. The then 22-year old was angling toward the summer sun with a pocket mirror and a tube of shockingly red lipstick.

Saira held the mirror close to her face, and in the right light with her one good eye she was able to find her lips. Her ritual of small dabs and sweeping strokes was punctuated with a pucker and a smile.

“My colour,” she said.

Saira’s lips were what remained of a face that once glowed with arresting beauty. Her skin was now warped and leathery and wiped of age. The bad eye was milky white with blindness and strayed downward as though it had lost its way in the darkness; the other, still black and piercing, was slowly surrendering its will to see.

Somehow Saira’s lips were strangely spared when the acid was thrown in her face by a disgruntled fiancé and they seemed the sole reminder of a young woman who existed until the day they formed the word, “no”. Everything else was the consequence of actually saying it.
(click on the video link above to watch Saira’s story)

Acid attacks on women are unfortunately not uncommon in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their effects are physically and emotionally shattering. Official statistics are not considered fair estimates because most incidents go unreported. A woman disfigured by acid is often hidden out of shame and condemned to a life of solitude.

Can a documentary change that?

Since a high-profile win at the Academy Awards the film “Saving Face” has forced the issue of acid attacks on Pakistan’s women to the spotlight. Last year, legislation spearheaded by women politicians in Pakistan became law to encourage prosecution and stiffer penalties against offenders. It is hoped the maximum sentence of 14 years proves a deterrent but the sort of acid used in attacks is still widely available and cheap.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the co-director of “Saving Face” (with Daniel Junge), answered questions for CTV from Karachi, Pakistan.

Your film (and its Oscar win) has people openly discussing the often taboo topic of acid attacks. Why are women targeted?

Women are attacked for a variety of reasons that stem from the concept of shame and power. A perpetrator throws acid for two major reasons: to establish their authority, and to permanently dehumanize a victim.

The women I met were attacked because of petty matters. Some had rejected a marriage proposal, others had shunned an eager suitor. Many survivors are attacked by family members: Zakia and Rukhsana, the two main subjects in Saving Face, were both attacked by their husbands. Zakia’s husband, a drug and alcohol addict, threw acid on her in broad daylight outside the civil court where she had filed for divorce. Rukhsana’s husband and mother in law attacked her because she was allegedly misbehaving in her role as a wife and mother.

I have met some of these women and what they have suffered is hard to see and difficult to describe. How do you explain to people what happens to a woman’s face and features when she is attacked with acid?

Acid violence has a devastating impact on the survivors of the attacks. Nitric or sulphuric acid melts the skin tissue exposing the bones below the flesh, often even dissolving the bone. In cases where the acid reaches the eye of the victim, it blinds them permanently. Many acid attack survivors have lost the use of one or both of their eyes, and others the use of their hands.

This largely inhibits the victims’ ability to work and even mother their children. It lowers future chances of marriage due to the appearance-distorting effect of acid. In Pakistani culture women are financially dependent on their men, and so this usually leads the victims to extreme and unavoidable poverty.

Acid violence does not usually kill its victims but instead leaves them suffering the consequences of their attack for the remainder of their lives. Survivors will be irritated by the itchiness and tightness of their skin on a daily basis, and may have trouble eating and drinking depending on the severity of the attack. Although the permanent scarring of the skin is unsightly and very expensive to reconstruct, it is the psychological scars that are more debilitating.

What about the emotional suffering and feelings of being condemned? How do families and society typically react?

The emotional trauma suffered by survivors is unimaginable. Physical disfigurement leads to a crushed sense of self, acute depression and feelings of inadequacy. Local communities and family members then exacerbate these feelings. Survivors are often forbidden from leaving the house as they are seen as a source of humiliation for their families. They are effectively removed from their place in society by not being able to access the public sphere. These sentiments are then internalized by survivors to a point where they start believing that they deserved to be attacked, and that they were simply being punished for bad behavior.

Does tougher legislation help protect women if acid is so readily available and simple to buy?

We hope that tougher legislation will act as a deterrent for people who are considering acid violence. Previously, perpetrators would act knowing that their victim would never file a case against them, and even if they did it was unlikely that they would receive a jail sentence if they were found guilty. The bill has already been put into action; very recently a girl named Yasmin was attacked with acid in the city of Sahiwal, Pakistan and her perpetrator has been arrested under the laws enforced by the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act.

Do most women want revenge?

Most women want justice, not revenge. Whilst some feel that justice can be served through the legal system a minority have voiced the desire to retaliate in their own way. However, I feel that their motivation is not so much the physical act of throwing acid on their perpetrator but the sense of satisfaction they would get from watching them suffer permanent damage like they have. Acid violence is unique because it affects a victim physically, emotionally and socially; it closes off many avenues for their future and severely limits their options. These aspects of acid assaults are what survivors want their perpetrators to feel.

You are garnering a lot of attention with your Oscar win, and being celebrated in Pakistan — what some are calling a rare ‘feel good boost’ for Pakistan. What does that mean to you?

The most gratifying and humbling part of this entire journey has been the response coming out of Pakistan. I have received an outpouring of well wishes and celebratory messages over the last few weeks, and no amount of thanks can convey my gratitude. It was a privilege to represent my country on such a prestigious platform, and I was proud to show a different side of Pakistan; one that was progressive, proactive and committed to solving its own problems.

Can an Oscar help stop acid attacks?

No, but it is a great way to start a movement! Daniel and I are launching an awareness campaign that will use “Saving Face” as an educational tool. We will be traveling to cities and villages and will screen the films in local town centers, schools and universities. Special focus will be given to areas in which acid violence is most rampant. Details about our initiative can be found at: http://www.savingfacefilm.com

Since the Academy Awards, we have heard received a variety of inquiries about getting involved in the campaign. Surgeons, philanthropists and rehabilitation organizations are being redirected to our partners, the Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan (ASF). “Saving Face” has started a conversation, now it is our job to sustain it.

@JanisCTV

“Saving Face” airs March 8th in Canada to mark International Women’s Day. For more information on the show click here.

http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/NationalNews/20120308/Sharmeen_Obaid_Chinoy_oscar_janis_mackey_frayer_120308/