The day Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for her documentary, Saving Face, I remember waking up to the sound of my phone buzzing with messages announcing her much anticipated win. I jumped out of bed with euphoria and switched on the television to hear Obaid-Chinoy dedicate her award to "all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan" and to "all the women in Pakistan who are working for change". Within a matter of minutes, Facebook and Twitter feeds were clogged with overjoyed, patriotic Pakistanis, reposting clips of her Oscar speech, with some even suggesting it was a greater occasion than when Imran Khan raised the cricket World Cup in 1992. I was one of the many who changed their bbm picture to that of Obaid-Chinoy with her Oscar award, uploaded her acceptance speech on their Facebook profile and congratulated the triumphant documentary film-maker on Twitter.
Obaid-Chinoy has done the country tremendously proud. Mohsin Sayeed said it better: “Thank you, Sharmeen. In a country where cinema is dead, you have proved that the country is not, people are not. You have shown that Pakistan is struggling to live a life of dignity, and honour, of normalcy. Thank you, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for creating history, for showing that if one Pakistani can, there's no reason why hundreds of millions can't, for showing the way that 'We can'. And this is the real, solid, meaningful 'We Can' than any other hollow political slogan as you have said it with action and not merely words. Today is one of the brightest days in our country, let’s celebrate it." And celebrate we did. From Geo’s little dancing mascot right above the tickers to making Saving Face trend on Twitter! Obaid-Chinoy had created history; given us a reason to be proud; a reason to smile and a reason to own Pakistan.
But in Pakistan, not everyone likes to revel in other people’s success. God knows what insecurities or jealousies overcome them but people tend to take out flaws in others just to put them down. And this was no different. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Saving Face highlights acid attacks on women, but commentators criticized the documentary, claiming it has brought shame on the country. They complained she is merely reinforcing the west's negative view of Pakistan by making public the country’s dirty linen. As writer Mohsin Hamid tweeted: "Upset Pakistan has won its first Oscar for a film 'critical' of the country? Your attitude might explain why it's taken so long."
The truth is that Pakistan has a ton of dirty laundry and one that we cannot do without brandishing. Not talking about those issues which plague our society is a sign of unhealthy denial and regression - silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Saving Face paints a very real and true portrait of what goes on in Pakistan on a near daily basis. 140 women suffer acid attacks every year in Pakistan; because acid violence is a highly unreported crime in the country, as is rape, this is probably an extremely understated number. Saving Face subjects Ruksana and Zakia are only two of the thousands who are subjected to this inhuman and barbaric practice. Not every acid victim has the opportunity to make their voice be heard; to live to tell their story; to find a Dr. Mohammad Jawwad who labors tirelessly to restore them to normalcy. One such victim was Fakhra Yunus.
In 2001, at the young age of 22, an acid attack by Fakhra’s then husband, Bilal Khar (Former MPA/Son of prominent politician and womanizer, Ghulam Mustafa Khar) left her only marginally alive. The attack rendered her faceless; burning the hair off her head, fusing her lips, completely blinding one eye, obliterating her left ear and melting her breasts. The horrific mutilation disfigured her so completely that she was confronted by open disgust and contempt by everyone who set eyes on her in Pakistan. After 13 years and 38 major surgeries, an emotionally scarred Fakhra, lost hope and committed suicide by jumping out of her sixth floor residence in Rome, Italy where she had been residing for over a decade.
Last Sunday, my Twitter livefeed was swamped with angry tweets against Bilal Khar and acid violence with people demanding justice and a retrial of Khar for attempted murder. A week down the line and Fakhra is out of sight, out of mind. The man accused of putting her through this ordeal, Bilal Khar shared his grief by giving interviews to tv channels and out rightly denying committing the act. He said he was sorry that she was dead but that he wasn’t responsible for it. That she was a sex-worker, a woman whom he had married despite her past but she insisted on returning back to her ‘usual routine’. ‘He isn’t responsible for her murder. Fakhra used his name to take amnesty in Italy, to make money and it benefited the women who were helping her to ‘cash in’. Because no one would give her amnesty and funds if they had used a Kanjar’s (pimp’s) name, it was his name that gave this case a media trial. He is innocent. If people are so bothered about justice for Fakhra why don’t they go to Napier Road and ask which ‘kanjar’ had done it? It couldn’t have been him, Bilal Khar, son of influential politician and feudal lord. It wasn’t possible because he is from a respectable family, he is Bilal Khar, and only Kanjar’s from Napier Road could commit such atrocious crimes.’
It matters not whether Fakhra was a dancing girl or a prostitute or a sex worker or a pimp. Nothing in this world can justify the heinous crime of throwing acid in someone’s face. In a country where justice is a joke and the law, a commodity to bought and sold, I am hoping against hope that Fakhra’s murderers are tried and convicted. Not just for attempted murder but also for constructive act manslaughter – if psychiatric illness can amount to grievous or actual bodily harm, can there be a more vexing psychological injury than an acid attack? One that not only disfigures your face but also mutilates your identity? And if not, how are factual and legal causation not met?
This is not a question of the law. This is a question of lawlessness and indifference – both of which are rampant in our society. Tehmina Durrani wrote ‘Fakhra is not a new tragedy.. she was always a tragedy. Her life was a parched stretch of hard rock on which nothing bloomed. Her country of birth gave her nothing at all. Her environment of birth condemned her to social unacceptability and disrespect. She was born without any right of choice.’ If people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy bring to the forefront people like Zakia and Ruksana, why can’t we just be happy that that’s two less Fakhra’s who may or may not have met with an end as tragic as the latter’s? Why must we turn a source of pride for our country into something that should be disdained and belittled? But more importantly, why must we let a person who deserves disdain and punishment, freely roam the streets of the country when he should be behind the bars?