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The women behind the Oscar

KARACHI: Behind the glamour of Pakistan on the Academy Awards red carpet and the outpouring of excitement on television, Twitter and Facebook lies the bravery of the female subjects of Saving Face, who have to keep a low profile for their own security.

“Rukhsana says that if she has to bear the consequences [of the film], so be it,” says Bilquis, a staff member at the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad, where the acid attack victims featured in co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary had sought refuge.

Both Rukhsana and Zakia, the two women attacked by their husbands who played central roles in the film along with plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad, denied requests to speak to the media for fear of further victimisation. Contrary to some news reports, their spouses were never prosecuted for this crime.

According to Bilquis, who has been deeply involved in the two cases, Zakia’s husband threw acid on her outside a court house during divorce proceedings while he was in police custody for other domestic violence, indicating possible support from law-enforcement. For both women, participation has been an act of extreme courage.

Zakia’s family knows about her role in the documentary but isn’t pleased about it, and her brothers insisted she leave the ASF. Rukhsana is living with her husband again after a still-troubled reconciliation, and he is not aware of her participation in the film.

But Bilquis communicates Rukhsana’s jubilant reaction to the Oscar win, the first Academy Award won by a Pakistani. “When she participated in this film she thought it would mainly be shown abroad. But even though it has now become big news and might be shown here, she is still thrilled about it. She says it was a form of justice, and now other sisters will get justice too.”

Sunday’s win in the short documentary category for the 40-minute Saving Face, co-directed by American filmmaker Daniel Junge, has come as unbelievable news for the staff of the ASF, which was featured in the documentary, and the acid attack victims it tries to help through free housing, surgery, and legal aid.

“It’s difficult to believe,” says ASF chairperson Valerie Khan, barely able to contain her excitement on the phone from Islamabad. “It’s so big that I haven’t realised it yet. It’s a symbolic achievement: a woman who has fought for women’s rights. And it concentrates on hope, celebrating Pakistani citizens building a fairer society for tomorrow.”

But both her and women’s rights activist Fauzia Saeed point out that more progress still needs to be made, despite the passage in December of an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code that criminalises acid attacks.

They explain that two further pieces of legislation are in the works, being pushed by the ASF, civil society organisations and the human rights ministry. The Acid Control Bill would regulate the sale and distribution of acid. And while acid throwing has already been criminalised, the third piece of legislation, the Acid and Burn Crimes Bill, goes beyond punishing perpetrators and calls for a number of other reforms needed to prevent attacks and help victims rebuild their lives. These include rehabilitation services, measures to ensure independent investigations and just trials, funding for victims, and a monitoring system.

Meanwhile, the focus on Monday was on celebration, and not just at the ASF. “It’s been completely incredible,” Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s mother said in an interview with Dawn about her 33-year-old daughter’s achievement. “It’s absolutely amazing, a dream come true. Even though she won an Emmy last year, winning an Oscar — I don’t think we saw that coming at such a young age.”

And the film’s director of photography, Asad Faruqi, told Dawn that the win had justified why he does what he does. “This is the only reason we make documentary films: to highlight the issues and get people’s stories out. When it’s recognised, it gives us the motivation to venture into areas where we didn’t think we could go.”

“We are happy and proud on several levels,” Ms Saeed added. “The award was won by a woman, it is a Pakistani film, and this is an important issue. I hope it will create the impetus for the comprehensive legislation that is badly needed.”

Meanwhile, Ms Khan points to the crucial role that Rukhsana and Zakia have played. “They were instrumental to getting the criminalisation bill passed, because they were willing to speak up,” she says. “They were doing so before the film, and Saving Face has highlighted their work further. They are true agents of change.”