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Zakia in Saving Face, an Oscar-winning short film.
Zakia in Saving Face, an Oscar-winning short film.

Winds of change lift veil of tears

Saving Face, the Oscar-winning short film that exposed the ugly truth of Pakistan's acid attacks, the courage of the victims and the humanity of those striving to rehabilitate them, started a groundswell of support in which the UAE has played a role.

After years of harassment from her husband, Zakia filed for divorce. Then the greater suffering began.

In a vicious act of retaliation he threw acid on her, scarring the left side of her face from the eyebrow to the corner of her mouth.

Zakia, 39, is one of estimated 150 women in Pakistan who are subjected to acid attacks every year.

But their pain may have led to intrinsic change in attitudes - and laws - in the country.

Zakia's story was featured in Saving Face, an Oscar-winning short film by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy that follows acid-attack victims and the doctors who volunteer to treat them.

The film led to a breakthrough in Pakistani legislation. A bill was passed in December outlawing the act and specifying prison terms of between 14 years and life for assailants. Previously, cases were handled under the "qisas" or retaliation law, based on "an eye for an eye", which was rarely applied.

Support from the UAE, in front of the camera and behind the scenes, assisted in the success of the film.

A Dubai specialist, who featured in Saving Face, played a crucial role in Zakia's rehabilitation. And when he and a doctor from London ran into visa problems, the Embassy of Pakistan in the Emirates stepped in to resolve the issue.

The embassy has not let it rest there. It has since announced plans to set up an institution in the Emirates to bring even more hope to women such as Zakia by selling their handmade crafts, quilts and embroidery.

Jamil Ahmad Khan, the Pakistani Ambassador to the UAE, said the embassy planned to do this through a non-governmental subsidiary of Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (Ahan), which translates into "one skill, one area".

Ahan operates in 26 rural areas of Pakistan. This would be its first foreign branch.

On Saturday, the embassy signed a memorandum of understanding with Momins Fashion, a London retailer planning to open a branch in the UAE, to sell some of the women's work.

"By doing this we provide women with the empowerment and sustainability to combat this crime," Mr Khan said. "The proceeds would then go through the NGO and back to the women in Pakistan."

The NGO, which will be launched next month with an exhibition of the women's work, will also provide counselling, networking, legal and medical aid, including long-term plans to train doctors in Pakistan on reconstructive procedures.

The move was approved in a meeting last week between Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister for Foreign Trade, and Hina Rabbani Khar, the Pakistani minister of foreign affairs.

Describing the filmmaker and the doctors' work as an inspiration, Mr Khan said they had prompted the formation of a system to help women such as Zakia, who he said were the victims of a "weapon of social punishment".

"There is no harm in unearthing such cases," he said. "With awareness, this will surely reduce the number of such cases until we can ultimately eliminate this atrocity."


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