By: HANEEN RAFI
KARACHI: For a long time women’s rights have remained on the back-burner, with progress usually restricted to specific professions, socio-economic classes, and of course nationalities. However, with recent publicity being generated internationally about the necessity of gender equity, no longer can one escape being part of this debate.
To commemorate the ‘16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’ campaign, the US consulate organised a screening of the Academy Award-winning documentary film, Saving Face, at the Royal Rodale on Wednesday. Director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy was also present at the screening to share her journey of fighting for human rights, as well as highlight the issues women in Pakistan face today.
This year marks the 24th year of the global campaign initiated in 1991. According to the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, which coordinates the campaign, the theme of the 2015 campaign focuses on developing peace in the home, and peace in the world through education.
Chinoy’s mission behind directing Saving Face has been to bring the issue of acid violence in Pakistan out in the open. For her, acid attack survivors become the living dead as every single day when they look into the mirror, their scars force them to relive those horrific moments. The scars become part of their reality which is something they can never escape.
Shaming the public to accept acid violence as a reality is essential. “One of the greatest things these women could do is to uncover their faces and shame society into accepting this as a pressing issue in Pakistan,” said Chinoy.
“Punjab is the province where acid crimes are the most prevalent. After Saving Face came out, the Punjab government made all cases related to acid crimes to be processed through the antiterrorism courts which would mean that they would be processed quicker.”
Chinoy also spoke about the various organisations and individuals who are working to help rehabilitate acid attack survivors back into society. One such is London-based Pakistani plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad, who Chinoy says has since moved back to Pakistan and routinely holds camps where he treats such patients.
“We have also partnered with a British Islamic charity called Islamic Relief, and they have started discussing the issue of acid violence in sermons at mosques in Southern Punjab where it is most prevalent,” she adds.
Speaking about her experience of working with acid attack survivors, Chinoy shared how they ended up becoming an inspiration to her. “Would I have had the courage to wake up every morning, look at myself in the mirror, laugh, and have a normal life, with a face like theirs? These are brave and inspirational women and I hope people look beyond their scars and recognise these qualities within them.”
Tackling accusations upfront about trying to present a negative image of Pakistan internationally, Chinoy says the message of Saving Face is actually very positive. “It tells us that a country like Pakistan which has an issue — acid crime — also has a doctor who returns to his country to address the issue, a parliament that listens to the testimony of its people and passes a law and starts implementing it, a lawyer that fights for these women. For me this shows that when there is a problem, we can come together to solve it.”
US Consul General Brian Heath also spoke about the emotions the film evokes each time he views it. “Watching it makes one very angry. However, it is important to channel that anger in a productive way, and use it in a positive way by talking to friends about respecting women, abstaining from violence, and preaching tolerance and understanding.”
He told the audience that “each year in Pakistan, more than 100 women are victims of acid attacks. This cruel and vicious practice must stop, as must the extensive and all too common violence against women and girls.”
With the publicity the film generated locally as well as internationally, has there been a change in the number of reported acid victims? According to Chinoy, “The numbers have gone up slightly. However, what we are unsure of is whether the frequency of attacks has increased or have people started to report them with the increase in awareness and legislation.”
In attendance at the screening were schoolchildren, all in uniform who shared their concerns, and ideas about making Pakistan a more tolerant society, especially for women. From concerns related to burn and rape victims, the competence of police officials, as well as cyberstalking, Chinoy was at hand to address queries from the younger audience.
Saving Face won the Academy Award in 2012, and an Emmy Award in 2013. Her most recent documentary film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, has been shortlisted for Oscars nominations in the category of Best Documentary — Short Subject.