Womenetics: Interview with Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

A native of Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy grew up knowing that women faced the threat of acid attacks. But it wasn’t until much later in life that the severity of these attacks and the awareness of the circumstances behind them prompted her to co-direct the documentary that won her an Oscar at this years’ Academy Awards.

“When Daniel Junge asked me to co-direct ‘Saving Face’ I felt it was the opportune moment to shed light on a prevailing evil in Pakistan and to create critical and effective discourse around the issue,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “However, when fieldwork began and I was able to witness the extent of what survivors have to endure, I was deeply affected and galvanized to stimulate change.”

The film follows two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, who have survived acid attacks. Both were attacked by their husbands and are fighting to rebuild their faces, their lives and the justice system surrounding the violence.

The man in charge of reconstructing the visceral scars was Dr. Mohammad Jawad. Jawad, a Pakistani plastic surgeon residing in the United Kingdom, performed this surgery for the first time on Katie Piper, a British model and acid attack survivor.

“Daniel heard about this case on BBC radio and decided to look into Dr. Jawad’s work. When he learnt that Dr. Jawad was flying to Pakistan multiple times a year to perform pro bono surgery on acid victims, he decided to document his work,” Obaid-Chinoy said.

Obaid-Chinoy described Dr. Jawad as a hero. The women in the film shared the same sentiment. They trusted him as the bandages came off and gratefulness and relief took over their faces.

The attacks are centralized in the Saraiki Belt, according to Obaid-Chinoy, an area in Southern Punjab that is known for high unemployment, low literacy levels and poor infrastructure – all harboring a backwards mindset.

“Women in this society are considered to be symbols of their family’s honor,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “When a woman is attacked with acid she is permanently disfigured, and her scars are seen as a permanent mark of shame, a reminder of the perpetrator’s motive to attack.”

After the attacks the women are often locked away and hidden from society, leaving them ostracized from their communities and their families. Rukhsana was condemned to a room of her own after her attack. Bricks were laid where a doorway once stood to disconnect her from her in-laws, her husband and her children.

“Gender inequality in Pakistan remains a vital issue. Women in societies such as that of the Saraiki belt are perceived as symbols of their family’s honor and thus have stringent societal expectations placed on them,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “Their behavior is observed very critically, and they are often severely penalized if perceived as stepping outside the boundaries that society has imposed upon them.”

One of the most poignant moments in the film combines Zakia waiting to hear if her husband has been convicted for his brutality toward her and if the bill for harsher sentences for acid attacks would be passed by parliament. Obaid-Chinoy and her crew documented the process of bringing the bill – that stated that a person convicted of committing an acid attack would receive life imprisonment – to parliament and the final vote.

“My team and I documented courageous survivors testify[ing] their stories in parliament, and bold women, such as parliamentarian Marvi Memon, lobby for this bill,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “Watching the parliament pass the bill unanimously felt like a victory for people working for women’s rights all over the world.”

In addition to witnessing the passing of the bill, Obaid-Chinoy was there when Zakia received the news that her case was the first to be tried under the new bill. Her husband received two life sentences. But even with parliament supporting the people who have been victims of these attacks, the stigmas and fears still remain.

“We have launched a campaign to educate communities in Pakistan about the passing of this bill and to raise awareness on the effects of acid violence by using ‘Saving Face’ as a tool to raise support,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “We are airing public service messages of this nature on television and radio in the Saraiki belt.”

Obaid-Chinoy and the people behind “Saving Face” have partnered with Islamic Help, a faith-based, youth-driven nonprofit organization headquartered in the U.K. that works to alleviate poverty,  to provide educational materials and programs to assist in changing the mindset of the people in these areas. The hope is to give women the courage to report the attacks and bring their attackers to justice, Obaid-Chinoy said.

“We must work to ensure that the government implements this new bill and simultaneously try to change the mindset that allows for gender-based violence,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “We hope that the project we are working on with Islamic Help will be able to make some headway in Pakistan, and then we can model this plan in other countries.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy continues her efforts in gender equality through her films and work as a journalist uncovering and exposing violent and unjust treatment. For more information on her work, visitsharmeenobaidfilms.com.

*Previously published on Womenetics.com, September, 2012. 

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