x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Faces of change with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the ADFF

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy speaks about her much-lauded documentary Saving Face, which will be shown at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this Saturday and Sunday.

A scene from the documentary Saving Face featuring the 23-year-old acid attack victim Rukhsana. Asad Faruqi / HBO
A scene from the documentary Saving Face featuring the 23-year-old acid attack victim Rukhsana. Asad Faruqi / HBO

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won an Oscar for documenting the trauma, helplessness and struggles of South Asian women disfigured by acid attacks.

The first movie from Pakistan to win an Oscar, Saving Face focuses on two acid-attack survivors - Zakia, 39, and Rukhsana, 23.

"I took this subject as it is very sensitive," says Chinoy, who is from Karachi. "I strongly felt there was a need to create awareness of the issue. Survivors such as Zakia and Rukhsana are not only left with physical scars; their families often opted to lock them up for the rest of their lives to hide their injuries. Trauma, disfigurement and ostracism are not nearly an exhaustive list of these consequences.

"It was not until I spent time with my subjects, researching for the film, that I realised how far-reaching and severe the consequences of each attack are," she says.

Zakia had acid flung on her by her husband and is now fighting for a divorce; Rukhsana, who was attacked by her husband and in-laws, has been forced to return to them.

Chinoy started her career as an investigative journalist and says the documentary was aimed at highlighting the menace of acid violence, which is becoming a major crime against women in South Asia. As many as 150 acid attacks take place in Pakistan every year, but only three incidents are reported, she says.

In Pakistan, most acid attacks are reported in the Saraiki belt of southern Punjab, one of the largest cotton-growing regions in the country, says Chinoy.

"Acid is used to process cotton and is readily available in Saraiki. This area is also beleaguered with low literacy, high unemployment levels and an arid climate. The lethal combination of frustration, backward mindsets and readily available industrial acid has led to the current state of violence," she says.

Acid attacks are reported in India as well. "Though the Pakistani parliament has taken steps to curb acid violence by criminalising the menace, we still have a long way to go. In India, there is currently no legislation in place to regulate the availability of acid or punish perpetrators of the acid violence," observes Chinoy. India does not have a separate section under the Indian Penal Code to deal with acid attacks but groups them with other crimes.

However, Bangladesh has effectively managed to lower the number of acid-related crimes. In 2002, the country passed laws regulating the availability of acid and other corrosive substances and prescribed stringent punishment for the perpetrators of acid attacks.

"The laws reduced the number of victims by more than half [in Bangladesh], and Pakistan must work towards mirroring their efforts," says Chinoy.

Pakistan passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill last year, under which an attacker faces a prison sentence of 14 years to life and a Rs1 million (Dh38,500) fine.

Saving Face screens Saturday at 5pm at Marina Mall's Vox 1 cinema and on Sunday at 7.15pm, also at Vox 1 cinema.