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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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.