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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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.