Pakistan’s First Oscar

By Beena Sarwar

Pakistan’s online community erupted in virtual cheers as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy received an Academy Award in Hollywood for co-directing the Best Documentary. A Tweet by Pakistani blogger Anthony Permal summed up the feelings of many of his compatriots: “A woman from Pakistan, who made a film about women, won an Oscar. In your face, world.”

The expression “in your face” may well have been an intentional pun on the title of Obaid Chinoy’s award-winning film, Saving Face. But some complained that because the film highlighted a particularly horrific form of gender violence (using acid to attack and disfigure women), it gave Pakistan “a bad name” – and so led to the country “losing face.”

This in effect sums up the bittersweet reality of Pakistan’s first-ever Oscar. The award meant international acknowledgement for Pakistani talent (through Obaid Chinoy) and the real life heroes who are fighting violence against women, including the survivors themselves. However, it is also a grim reminder of the acid burning phenomenon that stems from a complex set of socio-cultural beliefs and practices that Pakistan – and other countries in the region, like Bangladesh and India, where such attacks also occur – must do more to counter.

Activists believe that the prevalence of violence against women is far higher than the over 8,000 cases that are reported and compiled in the annual reports of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Acid attacks are relatively few, averaging around 30 a year in a country of approximately 170 million. But the devastation they cause is disproportionately immense – New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called it “a personal form of terrorism.” Survivors whose faces have been literally melted away by acid describe feeling neither dead nor alive.

Acid attacks were previously considered assault by the law, but thanks to lobbying by activists are now specifically dealt with under the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2010, enacted as law by Pakistani legislators at the end of 2011. Clearly, enacting laws alone will not end such attacks. What needs to change is a particular mindset, rooted in a patriarchal system, in which women are often seen as property. Those who throw acid on women tend to be disgruntled husbands or rejected suitors. Such attacks are among a long list of crimes against women that are considered “justified” by the prevalent notion of “honour.”

Hope lies in the organisations and individuals working to counter this phenomenon – doctors, non-governmental organisations and survivors themselves – like the Pakistani beautician Massarat Misbah’s Depilex Smileagain Foundation that rehabilitates survivors and provides skills training for them, often as beauticians. For her film, Obaid Chinoy worked with the Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan, which was established in 2006. Saving Face focuses on UK-based plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad (a graduate of Dow Medical College in Karachi), who regularly returns to Pakistan to operate upon acid burns survivors – literally saving their faces. The film also focuses on survivors and their struggles to obtain justice. In doing so, the film highlights a story of hope within a grim situation.

This is what Obaid Chinoy stressed in her acceptance speech, noting the “resilience and bravery” of the acid attack survivors and those working for their rehabilitation. She dedicated the award “to all the women in Pakistan who are working for change,” adding “don’t give up on your dreams – this is for you.”

There is much that needs to be addressed when it comes to gender violence – as well as education, health, social development and human rights – but the silver lining in these dark clouds lies in those who are working to counter these problems, the real-life heroes of Pakistan: thousands of ordinary men and women working for change in the fields of education, health, culture and human rights.

But such work rarely hits the headlines. Obaid Chinoy, the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, is one among many Pakistanis who are internationally acclaimed for their work in various fields. They include Asma Jahangir, the fiery human rights lawyer and UN Special Rapporteur, and physicist Dr Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate. Unlike the subjects of Obaid Chinoy and co-director Daniel Junge’s Saving Face, most of these heroes will never end up in an Oscar-winning film for the world to see.

Is that good or bad? Those who prefer to sweep Pakistan’s dirt under the rug will never see publicity about a problem like acid burning as a good thing. For those who believe that talking about problems is the first step towards solving them, Obaid Chinoy and Junge’s Saving Face is spot on.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Pakistan.

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