Ever since Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won the Oscar, I’ve seen comments all over the internet that give the impression that this documentary shows only the darker side of Pakistan. However, having actually seen the documentary I would like to clear this misunderstanding.
I had the good fortune of watching it, along with other Oscar-nominated works, at the National Archives in Washington DC on the morning of 26 February, the day before the Oscar winners were announced. While they were all excellent, Saving Face was definitely the best amongst them. Even though it was the longest one, the audience was riveted until the last moment.
Saving Face begins with Sharmeen interviewing Zakia, a victim of an acid attack. Zakia, who had filed for divorce, was attacked by her husband outside the court room after the hearing. Half her face, including one eye, was destroyed.
We are also introduced to Rukhsana, who was attacked with acid by her in-laws. Tired of mistreatment by her husband and his family, she takes her children and moves in with her parents. Soon, financial problems force her to return to her husband and ask forgiveness, a decision that has terrible consequences. In a harrowing scene, Rukhsana shows us the room in which she was attacked with acid by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.
Then there is Dr Jawad, a plastic surgeon in the UK who travels to Pakistan to treat the victims of acid attack at the Burns Centre in Islamabad. He meets Zakia first and is deeply moved by her story, trying very hard to save Zakia’s eye along with her face. Sadly, the optical surgeons tell him there is no chance of success. Nor does her legal struggle seem to bear fruit: Zakia attends every hearing of the case against her husband but the final hearing keeps getting postponed.
On the other hand, Rukhsana, who is waiting desperately for the surgery to restore her face, cannot undergo the operation because the initial tests reveal that she is pregnant. In a particularly moving scene, Rukhsana hopes the child will be a boy because she is afraid that a girl would face the same difficulties as her.
But there is also hope amid the despair. Zakia’s case is taken up pro bono by a female lawyer, and eventually, both women succeed in gaining the attention of various NGOs. They meet Marvi Memon and push for punitive legislation against acid attacks. Memon, moved by their pleas, proposes a bill in calling for life imprisonment for acid attackers
Near the end, a successful surgery gives Zakia her face back, and the optical surgeon designs an artificial eye for her. Rukshana gives birth to a baby boy and is successfully treated by Dr Jawad afterwards. The bill is unanimously passed in the assembly. In the end comes the happiest moment of all, as the court sentences Zakia’s husband to double life imprisonment terms.
Far from being a biased indictment of Pakistan, Saving Face shows women in Pakistan are moving ahead and fighting for justice in a male-dominated society. It also shows how, contrary to popular opinion, the courts do sometimes dispense justice. Another great aspect of Saving Face is that it brings to light the philanthropist mindset of our society, where individuals feel the need to give something back to their country. Eloquently summing it up is the closing quote from Dr Jawad: “I was not saving their faces; I was saving my own face as I am also a part of this cruel society.”
Correction: An earlier version of the article misspelt the word "successful". It has been corrected.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 11th, 2012.
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