By Sebastian Abbot
ABOVE PHOTO: Pakistani acid attack survivor, Azim Mai, 35, holds her daughter Shaziya, 8, while sitting on a bed waiting to have a massage session for their wounds, at the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. Azim Mai’s husband allegedly threw acid in her face and their daughter Shaziya last year after she refused to sell their two boys to a man in Dubai to use as camel racers. Rights activists Tuesday praised the laws, which stiffened the punishment for acid attacks and also criminalized practices such as marrying off young girls to settle tribal disputes and preventing women from inheriting property. The Senate provided final approval for two bills containing the new laws Monday.
(AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s government honored on Monday the country’s first filmmaker to win an Oscar: the director of a documentary on the plight of female victims of acid attacks in this conservative society.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the prize for the documentary “Saving Face,” which chronicles a London-based plastic surgeon who travels to Pakistan to treat women who have had acid thrown on them. The attacks are often carried out by angry husbands or spurned lovers.
While Pakistan’s media and political parties can often be sensitive to criticism, the prestige of an Oscar appears to have outweighed any qualms the government might feel about celebrating a film that shows the country in a bad light to international audiences.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that Obaid-Chinoy would receive a civil award for her accomplishment.
“The pride of Pakistan is in their artistes & intellectuals. Not in bombs and bans!” tweeted liberal columnist Nadeem Paracha.
The director for her part praised the resilience and bravery of the women documented in the film during her acceptance speech in Los Angeles. She dedicated the award to all women working for change in Pakistan.
“Don’t give up on your dreams,” said Obaid-Chinoy, who co-directed the documentary with Daniel Junge.
Mistreatment of women is widespread in Pakistan, a conservative nation of some 175 million where most people are poor, only half the adults can read, and extremist ideologies such as that of the Taliban are gaining traction.
In 2010, at least 8,000 acid attacks, forced marriages and other forms of violence against women were reported, according to The Aurat Foundation, a local nonprofit. Because the group relied mostly on media reports, the figure is likely an undercount.
The Pakistani government recently stiffened the punishment for acid burnings in a landmark set of laws passed by parliament. They mandated that convicted attackers serve a minimum sentence of 14 years, and pay a minimum fine of about $11,200.
The laws also criminalized other common abuses, such as marrying off young girls to settle tribal disputes and families preventing women from inheriting property.
Rights activists praised the laws but stressed their passage was just the first step, and likely not the hardest one. It could be even more difficult to get Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient legal system to protect women’s rights that many men in this patriarchal society likely oppose.