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.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.