Acid attacks in Pakistan: A sorry litany of male egotism

Samira Shackle interviews Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, one of the directors of the Oscar-winning documentary "Saving Face".

Acid attacks in Pakistan have hit the news again, after the death of a 15-year-old girl in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Anusha’s parents threw acid on her as punishment for “looking at a boy”. Two days later, she was dead.

Her story highlights, once again, the bleak situation for women in Pakistan, particularly in remote or uneducated areas, where they are viewed as second-class citizens. Acid attacks – which destroy lives in an instant – are made possible by the easy availability of acid as a cheap cleaning fluid, or for use in the cotton industry. Laws introduced last year set a minimum sentence of 14 years and a maximum of life for acid violence. In practice, however, this has been hampered by the dysfunctional legal system, and just 10 per cent of cases make it to court.

The issue of acid violence was brought to international attention by this year’s Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face. Several months ago, I interviewed one of the film’s directors, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, for a piece that didn’t make it into the magazine at the time. Here it is.

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The faces are tightly stretched, distorted. Eyes stare out of lidless sockets; dissolved cheeks are replaced by bulges of pink, shiny scar tissue. The stories differ in their detail but in essence, are the same: a sorry litany of male egotism. “My husband burned me. I was sleeping and he came inside and just threw acid on me. He didn’t want me anymore,” says one woman, her voice a dull monotone. Another says:  “I was thirteen years old at the time of the attack. My schoolteacher wanted to be with me but I refused and then he threw acid on me.”

Every year, many women in Pakistan are victims of brutal acid attacks. The Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan deals with over 100 cases a year, but estimates that the real number of people affected is far higher. These attacks – frequently linked to domestic violence or revenge by rejected men – are made possible by the easy availability of acid for use in the cotton industry.

The problem is the subject of the Oscar winning documentary, Saving Face, which follows two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, as they try to rebuild their lives. While it is a difficult subject to film – co-director Daniel Junge said that many of the worst victims were so disfigured they were not broadcast-able – it is not entirely bleak. The documentary shows British Pakistani doctor Mohammed Jawad providing reconstructive surgery, and during the course of the film, a law is introduced criminalising acid violence.

I spoke to co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, now feted in her home country after becoming the first Pakistani woman to win an Oscar. She tells me how it felt as the law was changed. “The atmosphere was electric and there was a genuine sense of community amongst the women parliamentarians present. This bill, along with a number of gender related bills, have made their rounds at the parliament, and many have never been approved.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shows off her Oscar during a press conference in Karachi in May 2012.

Filming on such a sensitive topic in a shame culture like Pakistan was always going to be difficult. Tension surrounded the screening of the film within Pakistan, after some women who featured fleetingly in the film complained that they did not give permission for it to be shown in the country. “[People] gossip all the time if they see a woman in a film,” one of the women, Naila Farhat, said. “We do not want to show our faces to the world”. Obaid-Chinoy and Junge maintain that disclaimers were signed. Zakia and Rukhsana, who feature prominently, have not made any complaints, and according to the directors, were empowered by telling their stories.

I ask Obaid-Chinoy how she feels about her responsibilities. “I think film makers have the responsibility to stay true to their subjects regardless of the nature of the documentary or its eventual purpose,” she says. “Characters and their messages must be correctly represented and journalistic integrity must be maintained at all times. A camera is a very powerful tool, and documentaries are able to directly transport an audience to the centre of an issue or situation. As filmmakers we must be cognizant of this power, and use it honestly.”

Acid attacks are by no means an exclusively Pakistani problem: as Obaid-Chinoy points out, they happen wherever women are disenfranchised: Cambodia, Columbia, Nepal, and Thailand, to name but a few.

If the film does anything, it should be to transfer the shame from the victim to the perpetrator. More often than not, women in Pakistan are never asked for their side of the story. “They are undoubtedly some of the bravest women I have met in my life, and it was a privilege to have spent time with them,” said Obaid-Chinoy. Those burned faces are testament to the limits of human resilience.

Mohammad Zafar (R) and wife Zaheen Akhtar, arrested on suspicion of throwing acid on their 15-year-old daughter. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.