Oscar-winning acid attack film sparks controversy in Pakistan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.05.2012
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Oscar-winning acid attack film sparks controversy in Pakistan

Some of the survivors of acid attacks portrayed in a recent documentary about their fates fear reprisals if the film is broadcast in Pakistan. Acid crime affects hundreds every year.

In February, there was jubilation in Pakistan when Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani filmmaker to win an Academy Award. “Saving Face,” Obaid-Chinoy's 40-minute documentary, is about the victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.

It focuses in particular on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, who fight to rebuild their lives after being attacked by their husbands, and ôn the Pakistani-born plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad who tries to restore people's faces by using artificial skin substitutes, grafts and other surgical techniques.

“No-one who sees these women could fail to be moved,” the London-based surgeon posted on his blog after the Oscars ceremony. “Each beautiful in their own way, their lives have been destroyed, their faces and bodies disfigured, often by members of their own families. They are the real heroes here. They have been ostracized from society following the terrible attacks that have been inflicted upon them.”

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the first Pakistani director to win an Oscar

Fear of reprisals

Some of these heroes are now worried that the film might be broadcast on Pakistani television and trigger reprisals. A few of the survivors who appear are reportedly taking legal action against Obaid-Chinoy and her co-producer Daniel Junge.

“We had no idea it would be a hit and win an Oscar,” Naila Farhat, 22, who appears briefly, told the news agency AFP. “We never allowed them to show this film in Pakistan.”

She and other survivors fear the unknown. “We may be in more danger and we're scared that, God forbid, we could face the same type of incident again. We do not want to show our faces to the world.”

Pakistani acid victim Fakhra Younus

Pakistani acid victim Fakhra Younus committed suicide in March 2012 after a decade of surgery

Obaid-Chinoy told AFP the women who had participated in the film had signed legal documents allowing it to be shown anywhere in the world, including Pakistan.

On their website, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge express their “deep gratitude to Zakia and Rukhsana for bravely telling their stories on film, to our NGO partners Acid Survivors Trust International, Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan and Islamic Help, and to the countless other men and women dedicating their time and expertise to the campaign to eradicate acid violence.”

However, a rift has apparently since opened between the filmmakers and the Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan (ASF). Executive Director Mohammad Khan declined to answer any of DW's questions, stating merely in an email that “ASF has ethical commitments towards the survivors. Our mandate is to protect survivors' human rights and that is what we are doing.”

Naveed Muzaffar Khan, a lawyer hired by the non-profit organization to represent the victims, told the news agency AFP that the survivors “had not consented for it [the film] to be publicly released in Pakistan.” He said the producers had seven days to agree not to release the film publicly, or he would seek a formal injunction in court.

Acid victims are overwhelmingly women

Acid Survivors Trust International defines acid violence as “the deliberate use of acid to attack another human being.”

“The victims of acid violence are overwhelmingly women and children, and attackers often target the head and face in order to maim, disfigure and blind,” it states on its website. “The act rarely kills but causes severe physical, psychological and social scarring, and victims are often left with no legal recourse, limited access to medical or psychological assistance, and without the means to support themselves. Acid violence is a worldwide phenomenon that is not restricted to a particular race, religion or geographical location.”

The motives for acid crime, which occurs at differing degrees from Colombia to Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, range from domestic disputes to issues surrounding land occupancy.

Three acid victims

It is extremely difficult for victims of acid attacks to rebuild their lives

Punishment for rejecting a marriage proposal

In Pakistan, the rejection of a marriage proposal is behind a majority of the attacks. According to data compiled by Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan, at least 3,017 acid attacks were reported between 1999 and 2011. Other NGOs place the figure much higher and it is difficult to estimate how many unreported cases there are.

Although the Pakistani government adopted stricter legislation against acid crime in 2011, imposing a 14-year sentence and a minimum fine of over $11,000, often the laws are not implemented and perpetrators are not convicted.

The publicity around the film served to bring the issue back into the spotlight and another campaign was launched to raise awareness.

“Although the award is a matter of personal and national pride, its content is a matter of national shame,” said the News, a daily newspaper, after the Oscars ceremony.

Accepting her award, Obaid-Chinoy, who was born in the port town of Karachi in 1978, paid tribute to “all the women in Pakistan who are working for change.” “Don't give up on your dreams,” she told them. “This is for you.”

Author: Anne Thomas (AFP, AP, dpa)
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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