Published in Daily times on May 12th 2012
Much has been said about Pakistan’s first Oscar for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face and the subject of acid crime against women in Pakistan. It has been argued that the film has brought Pakistan’s image a golden streak, which is relevant because a good image, from a reputational risk perspective, governs politics, economy and goodwill. It has also been said that the film brought negative publicity because it highlighted what the western media caricatures Pakistan as — a chauvinist, bigoted and violent culture. Some even went ahead and called it mediocre in terms of its art and its message.
Could it be neither and all the above? Yes, an Academy Award is a very big deal; even the Indians with their Bollywood budgets and their industry size do not have one. And yes, acid violence is a very dark subject. And yes, it is a documentary that tells a tragic story, using plain techniques and it’s not a Clint Eastwood film.
We are focusing on the wrong things.
In the film, a husband of an acid survivor who is taken into custody categorically denies the charge that he attacked his wife. On the contrary, with cold vindictiveness, he says that some other man attacked her while he watched. The attacker’s father however gave a more chilling account of the event and said that women deserve this treatment because they do one ‘good job’ of dishonouring men through their actions.
This politics of gender, this war on women as Merlyn French so aptly put it, this systemic attempt to break down women — their spirit and their freedom — this is what the film has brought forward, and like it or not, this is Pakistan. The characters in this film are very strong. Zakia tells a story not just of a cycle of domestic violence from an abusive husband who was a drug addict, but of revenge. She ‘dared’ to stand for her rights and seek a divorce through the courts. She was attacked while she was walking out of the courtroom; it happened right at the place one goes to seek justice.
Breaking away from an abusive marriage is the most difficult thing for the abused because psychologically, your abuser becomes the only source you get validation for your self-worth. Zakia was a hero before the attack. But what makes for an epic tale of bravery is how she ‘reconstructed’ herself when even her most basic symbol of identity — her face — is brutally burned by what she describes as ‘concentrated and undiluted’ acid that is used in batteries. She also tells her doctor how her face remained infected for weeks before it became one flat graft of thick scar covering her eye.
In the end, Zakia has almost the same face that is shown in the pictures in the beginning of the film. Destroyers of innocence are the worst sort of criminals, and those who destroy smiles deserve a special place in hell.
Zakia is one voice among many. There are over a hundred acid attacks in Pakistan every year. The psychological effect of these attacks on women is very intense, leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in most women, which when left untreated for many years, as it often is, leads to Acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (APTSD) Symptoms include flashbacks, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, anxiety and depression. These conditions sometimes last for life. Tragically, because of lack of economic empowerment, women are sometimes forced to live in the environment in which they were subjected to the attack and cohabit with people — both male and female — that attacked them with acid. Rukhsana is one such woman. Her bravery is that she survived the attack.
A scene from the film that I think should be shown in parliament is when Rukhsana prays that the child in her womb is a boy and not a girl. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), 1400 years ago, came with a message to Arabia that the custom of burying the girl child alive is against the principles of Islam. Today a country that (wrongfully) claims that it was created in the name of Islam treats its women worse than animals, so much so that mothers wish girls were never born.
Saving Face tells us there is a way to clear the rubble. One is through charity; we need more plastic surgeons to come and reconstruct faces that have been damaged. Then we need strong legislation that punishes the culprits; this has been done through a unanimous vote in parliament led by Marvi Memon. Lastly, our youth must be educated about these issues. Boys are constantly sent a message in Pakistan that women are objects to be abused. This also happens in a country like the US sometimes. The recent film, Detachment by Tony Kaye tackles this subject for American public high schools. But, interestingly, when such a film is made in the US, the country doesn’t react by shooting the messenger; they become introspective.
We need more noise about this, not less.