When we first started ThandieKay, we were very aware of using the concept of beauty to explore a far wider canvas than our faces. That is why one of our very first posts on this platform was on Pakistani filmmaker, activist, and double Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Amidst our front page with lovely interviews and ‘tips on beauty’, was a post on Sharmeen’s powerful documentary ‘Saving Face’ which focused on the horrendous acid attacks on women in Pakistan for which Sharmeen earned her first Academy Award. It spoke to many themes that we are passionate about; education for women, a supportive community free of ‘shame’, aid for the marginalised voices and the acknowledgment of the damage that toxic masculinity can manifest. A severely scarred face wrecks a woman’s identity in more ways than one: by seeking to ‘destroy’ a young woman’s beauty, you seek to destroy her very soul while either killing her in the process, or rendering her obsolete while still alive. And for what?
Sadly, grotesque acts of violence against women, for simply asserting themselves, are a very real, ever-present threat in many parts of the world.
A few years on Sharmeen has added another Academy award for her documentary ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness‘ to her already long list of accolades and recognitions- which now include six Emmy wins, two Academy awards, a SAARC film award and a Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s second highest civil honour. A Girl in the River follows the story of Saba Qaiser, a young Pakistani woman, who survived after being attacked, shot in the head and left in a river to die by her father and uncle- an ‘act of honour killing’. Public pressure eventually persuaded Saba to forgive her attackers, allowing them, by law, to escape prosecution for the attack. The film’s Oscar nomination brought public attention to the human rights issue of honour killings in Pakistan and the injustice of the ‘forgiveness’ law. Honour killings are a fearful tradition and the laws like this that permit it remove the sense of its criminality and actually embolden the perpetrators within their communities. Saba’s story is unique- the victims do not usually survive- we do not usually get to hear their story. Even in the documentary, Saba’s father believes that his actions will serve as a warning to his other daughters. With the film, Sharmeen asserts that ‘it has nothing to do with honour; it’s premeditated, cold-blooded murder’, as she told The Guardian in February this year.
While filming in the mountains of Pakistan, Sharmeen was so gracious as to take the time to answer Thandie’s questions on the film, its role in bringing about social reform and the future of women’s rights in Pakistan:
Women in Pakistan have a new perspective on their rights thanks to the media and the penetration of the cell phone across the country. Yet, these women are faced with a number of existential threats, and violence against them is continuing to rise. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this is that more and more women are speaking out and asking for their rights.
Pakistan has countless laws that protect the rights of women, and as a step towards further educating and protecting them, I am currently working on a series of short informative videos. This series will give Pakistani women knowledge of their rights accorded to them by the current constitution – whether it has to do with rape, sexual harassment, divorce, inheritance, etc. I hope that, through these videos, women are able to acquire accurate information and clarity about the law – and what options they have should they find themselves in a vulnerable or compromising situation.
Equipping a woman with even the most basic of education, in even the most rural of locations, can change her life. Education can empower women to become self-entrepreneurs, and with the advent of Facebook and social media, women are now able to start their own businesses and sell their products online both nationally and internationally. With such start-ups, women are now bringing in more and more income into the household, making them not only financially independent but also important contributors within their family. By becoming earning members, women are given a stronger voice in the household.
Education is key to ensuring that women have the resources and access to be their own role models and their own support systems. They say that when you educate a girl, you educate the whole family – nothing is truer than this.
There have been advocates who have been working on the issue of honour killing in Pakistan for years, and I feel the film has helped bring new attention to the issue. Last year, Senator Sughra Imam introduced the Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014, which aims to make the crime non-compoundable so that a convicted person cannot escape culpability by being ‘forgiven’ by the victim. The bill passed through Senate in March 2015 but lapsed in Parliament later that year.
The issue of honor killings was again brought to the forefront after ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, with the world watching, the film elevated the issue of honor killings to the national sphere. I was then invited by the Pakistani Prime Minister to screen the film at the PM House, where he pledged to end this heinous crime. The Anti-Honor Killing Bill was passed in Parliament in October this year.
I believe the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan, but our problem is with implementation. I think there has been an awakening in the justice system as well as the public with regards to women’s rights. The legal
developments are a positive sign and the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan. Our problem is with implementation. The prevalence of such attacks stems partly from structural inequalities that make it difficult for women to access the judicial system. Furthermore, our police force is not fully equipped or trained to deal with issues such as honor killings – and there is a mindset that still believes such issues are ‘family matters’.
I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as ‘more important and more pressing’ matters. Conversations in most countries, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament,
are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a generation that is currently witnessing a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance. The very fact that women are currently unable to make their own policy decisions in many countries is an alarming reality and pushes us further away from being the owners of our own stories and fighters for our own rights.
It baffles me that we live in 2016 and women still don’t enjoy the same social, political and economic rights that men to around the world have. Whether is it in U.S. where women are battling to gain control over their own body through planned parenthood and abortions, or the Philippines where women don’t have the right to divorce, or Iraq and Syria where women are being kept as slaves in times of war. Whether it’s in the home or the court, a woman’s voice doesn’t seem to have the same strength and reach as a man’s voice.
I believe that Pakistan is moving towards a more progressive attitude about women’s rights. We are slowly coming together as a society to reject acts of inequality and gender-based violence. It was refreshing to observe that even though such a great tragedy had befallen women like Saba and Qandeel Baloch at the hands of the men in their communities, there were those who rallied to their side, including police officers, lawyers and in Qandeel’s case, her father.
Pakistan recently passed the Anti-Honor Killings Bill and the Women’s Protection Act. This is a monumental step in sending out a strong message that the Pakistani government will not stand for the mistreatment of its women – it is high time that women’s rights are prioritized and protected.
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Posted by Thandie.
It’s the stuff of nightmares, of whispered contracts with God. It’s unimaginable.
But acid attacks are a reality on a global scale. A few cases have been reported in UK and USA. But it’s most common in Cambodia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India; all countries where patriarchy is deeply entrenched. A giant percentage of the victims are women and girls. Cornell University conducted a study in 2011 and found that most attacks were acts of revenge, because a woman spurned sexual advances or rejected a marriage proposal.
The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Islamabad estimates that in Pakistan around 150 women have acid thrown on them every year. Most of the victims are uneducated, poor and completely reliant on others. The number of victims is undoubtedly far higher as many cases go unreported, due to rampant police corruption, no access to legal assistance, and fear.
A key force for change is for those for whom it is unimaginable, to help those for whom it is all too imaginable. It’s a throw of the dice that allows me to be in a place where a crime like that goes heavily punished, similarly that allows me to have been entitled to an education, a decent job, respect and security. What happens to one person anywhere, affects everyone everywhere – we’re growing more aware of that as the world shrinks with access to information and technology.
My friend, film-maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is from Pakistan. Her outstanding film ‘Saving Face’ charts the rehabilitation of a few survivors of appalling acid violence in Pakistan. The film won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary. When she and fellow film-maker Daniel Junge won the Oscar, it was a massive opportunity for viewers world over to be better equipped to help in the struggle to end acid violence. The film does more than document the horrific crimes – it portrays the humanity of the survivors and the steps Pakistanis are taking to tackle the problem. As Sharmeen says;
“It goes beyond the immediate horrors of acid violence to its prolonged effects. It forces its viewers to empathize with, but also admire the immense strength of the survivors”.
Women like you and me – Zakia and Rukhsana – are seen struggling to bring their assailants to justice, in a system which places women at the bottom of the social pile. I watched the film willing them on; appalled by the obstacles they faced. Sharmeen interviews a husband on camera; he denies his crime, and blames his injured wife. Another husband sits in prison awaiting trial, again denying his wife’s claims; full of resentment and blame.
And yet, in the film we see extraordinary transformation take place as the women receive support from key people – an attorney who is representing the survivors, a politician who is advocating for new legislation (no easy task), NGOs, and the rock star plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Ali Jawad.
Dr Jawad is British, with a world-renowned practice in the UK. He is originally from Pakistan, and some years ago decided to ‘give back’ to his country of origin. He partnered with the NGO Islamic Help and began donating his expert services to victims of acid attacks. I met him on a couple of occasions, and as you can see in the film; his compassion, charisma, good humour and absolute belief that he can significantly rebuild a victim’s identity, transform the patients’ whole lives.
We see them trust in his expert care, and the journey of rebuilding their features mirrors their journey of personal empowerment. By the end their changed, new face is different to their previous features in more ways than the physical. Their eyes shine with a brighter determination, and pride. Watching the film, I could see that the bridge to their personal empowerment was structured around awareness. An awareness of their basic human rights, political rights (which they decided should be changed!), awareness of their strength, their lust for life and the lives of others threatened with this inhumane possibility. Of course, their awareness relied on the hard work and expertise of professionals determined to root out (as Dr Jawad calls it) “the disease” of acid attacks in Pakistani society. But it was clear that with the same education and opportunities, Sakia could have been the surgeon, lawyer, politician – the same light shone in her as it did in them. The film honours these women’s strength, and I watched with awe and respect as they transformed their pain into power.
After months of surgical procedures, painful recovery and councilling, Dr Jawad’s patients are ready to face the world. Their new features reflect new women, and there’s genuine delight and wonder as Dr Jawad concludes his artistry. gfchjjggiughuhguhhoho
Sakia’s attack was so severe that she requires a prosthetic mask over one eye – cleverly attached to spectacles for ease of attachment and removal.
The prosthetic has been moulded to match the shape of her face, with a beautiful artificial eye matching her healthy one.
I noticed something then, which was powerfully symbolic of Sakia’s pride and recovery. She was wearing make up. She’d lined her eyes, applied mascara, perhaps shadow, blush, and a subtle shade of lipstick. She looked beautiful. It wasn’t the make up that made her look beautiful necessarily, but it was the fact that she had accentuated her features with adornments that can only mean she wanted others to look, to see, to notice her. How powerful a thing is that? See this face that I love, notice these eyes that I have framed with dark intensity, see these cheeks that rise when I smile and express my emotion, see these lips that will speak my truth with words that you remember. Something so seemingly banal – cosmetics – became the colours of victory, the signature of pride, the celebration of life. It was a wordless communication that I recognised because women world over do, and want, the same things. Because we are the same. And being protected from violence is not an aspiration, it is a right – one to which we are all entitled.
Preview, buy & download Saving Face on ITunes here