The following post is by Abraar Karan, Yale Parker Huang Research Fellow, and originally appears on his blog.
I had the privilege of attending a private screening of Saving Face, the winner of Sunday night’s Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject), followed by a Q & A with one of the directors, Daniel Junge, and one of the documentary’s protagonists, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon whose work the film revolves around. On a quick side note, Dr. Jawad was the also the surgeon who operated on British model and acid victim Katie Piper who recently had her eye sight restored through stem cell therapy. In short, Saving Face is about Dr. Jawad’s journey back to his home land of Pakistan where he works to reconstruct the faces of women who have suffered acid attacks by their husbands, other males of close relation, and sometimes even other women. The reasons cited by attackers in many of the countries where acid violence is an issue are multifold- refusal by the women to accept unwanted marriage proposals, basic petty arguments in the house over minor issues, and even attempts to simplypursue education as a woman. The film interviews several survivors of these attacks, mostly women from rural areas, and focuses on two main characters, Zakia and Rukhsana, who are both victims. One of the sub-plots includes Zakia’s court case against her husband which she eventually wins through the application of a recently passed Pakistani bill that sentences between 14 years and life in prison, as well as a $14,000 fine for men who are perpetrators of acid attacks. Throughout the documentary, several women’s faces are shown, most of which are gruesomely deformed from the attacks and consistently elicited waves of shocked gasps from the audience. I whole-heartedly applaud Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (the other director) for giving these women a voice to the rest of the world, and to Dr. Jawad for using his plastic surgery skills for something other than breast implants (which he says he also does quite well in the documentary). The government of Pakistan, elated at the indirect receipt of an Oscar, has also declared that Ms. Chinoy will be presented with Pakistan’s highest civil award upon her return.
As always, the question remains: what next? As became more apparent to me at the Q and A, there are far more questions that are still left unanswered. As with all global health and human rights issues, the hope is that these women will still be helped systematically and sustainably after the current publicity has died down. To this extent, Chinoy has announced an anti-acid awareness campaign to begin soon in Pakistan. While I felt that the documentary was great for “awareness,” I still felt immobilized in my seat in an amphitheater in America because of the dire complexity of the issue at hand. Throwing acid on a woman’s face is a symptom of a much larger, more pervasive, more culturally ingrained problem of misogyny and patriarchy in South Asia and the Middle East. While these forces still exist globally, they are more prevalent in the aforementioned regions. At one point, Dr. Jawad characterized the problem as being “local and focal” and unrelated to religion, culture, or the society at large because most people would not condone acid attacks. Sure, if asked directly, most people would probably denounce attacking someone else with acid, but I disagree that society, culture, and as culture’s corollary, religion, are not to blame (I argue not against religion itself but men’s attempts to irrationally apply it to defend culture). I believe the three are closely intertwined and reinforce one another.