Oscar-winning film sheds light on vicious acid attacks against women

The Takeaway

There are at least 100 reports of acid attacks in Pakistan each year, and they’re overwhelmingly against women.

While the number is shockingly high, it only accounts for the reported cases. Many more are assumed to go unreported.

The Academy Award-winning documentary short “Saving Face” looks at this phenomenon through the experiences of three people: Zakia, a 39-year-old woman whose husband threw acid on her after she filed for divorce; Rukhasana, a 23-year-old woman who was attacked by her husband and his family; and Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a Pakistani-British plastic surgeon dedicated to healing the faces of the injured women.

Working with her American co-director Daniel Junge, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy — the first person from Pakistan to win an Oscar — has placed the issue of acid attacks on Pakistan’s women in the spotlight, bringing international attention to the global human rights abuse.

Obaid Chinoy said the attacks are committed by “husbands, suitors, scorned lovers … people who feel that they need to teach the women in their family a lesson.” She stressed that these women have done nothing wrong when they’re attacked.

“The crime is in the minds of the men. For example, if they feel that their wife has been unfaithful. Or if they feel that someone has turned down a suit. A person proposes marriage, somebody turns it down, and he says ‘Well, if I can’t have her, no one can’,” she said.

In the film, Jawad said she feels a sense of personal responsibility to these women who have been so horribly disfigured. In one telling scene, he struggled to make sense of their horrific stories.

“I just, I cannot understand this,” she said. “I’m trying not to be angry. I don’t want to hear these stories anymore. There’s an end to this story.”

But in reality, there is no end.

“Even for a hardened surgeon like Dr. Jawad, he was emotionally struck by it,” Junge said.

One of the challenges of a film like “Saving Face,” which is completely subtitled and features a cast that does not speak English, was translating the brutality of the situation while still showing the hope and strength of the women — so as not to portray them as helpless victims.

For Chinoy, the toughest challenge was seeing that the horrific attacks were happening in her own country, not far from where she grew up.

“It was horrific, personally, to deal with the mindset of the men. I think when Daniel and I were thinking about the film, we were thinking about how we could show the women to not be the victims, but to be the survivors,” she said. “You see the women in the film laughing and joking, and you see through that mayhem and through the disfigurement, that these are women struggling on a daily basis just to raise a family. They have the same kind of issues as anybody else does. We’ve heard from people who’ve come out of watching the film, that they’ve connected with the women.”

The Acid Survivors Trust International estimates that globally, there are approximately 1,500 acid attacks a year.  Because acid attacks are largely underreported, the numbers are probably much higher. According to the trust, victims of acid violence are overwhelmingly women and children. Attackers are almost always male, and victims are attacked for refusing proposals of love, sex or marriage. 

Chinoy said that the attacks take place in an area in Pakistan known as the Saraiki belt, which has the lowest levels of education and the highest levels of unemployment.

“You don’t need a license to buy acid, and there is a mindset that violence against women is OK. For years, violence against women, especially women in the family, has gone unpunished,” she said. “During the making of this film, we saw a very active Parliament in Pakistan drafting a bill, hearing the testimonies of these women, and presenting a bill that now makes acid violence punishable by life imprisonment.”

In the past year, the Pakistani government has enacted three major laws in support of women. During production last year, one law passed that would mandate a minimum, mandatory prison term of 14 years — and as long as life — for acid attacks.

These advancements, in addition to the film’s hopeful scenes, inspired Pakistani women to implement change in their communities.

“The first time that Zakia, the film’s main subject, puts on makeup, she wears red, which is a symbol for hope and a new beginning. She walks for the first time without covering her face on the streets of Rawalpindi. You see people looking at her, and you see her confidence. That’s when you realize that even for these women, everything — any small thing makes such a big difference,” Chonoy said.

While some of the men who were accused of and convicted of these crimes are imprisoned, many others are not and are unapologetic about their horrendous actions.

Rukhasana’s husband said the woman’s bad temper led her to pour gasoline over herself while standing too close to a candle — by way of explanation for her disfigurement. He also claimed that 99 percent of women in the burn clinic “have burned themselves alive.”

Chinoy explained the men felt that they had done nothing wrong.

“That mindset needs to be changed. But we needed to show the mindset of the men for the audience to understand what these women have to go through on a daily basis and why they are victims of such a heinous attack,” she said

The film has inspired many other Pakistani women to come forward to testify against their attackers.

“It’s an incredible feeling in a country that has such bleak news,” Chinoy said. “It really shows to Pakistanis that we can solve our own problems if we so desire to.”

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