Of Oscars & Acid Attacks – meeting Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy & working towards a better Pakistan

Here I am, diligently taking notes & tweeting. Photo credits: Zaheer Khawaja

Today I had the privilege to attend “A Panel Discussion with Ms. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy“, moderated by Dr. Marilyn Wyatt, wife of the US Ambassador to Pakistan, at the HEC Auditorium. I was invited as a blogger, and was “plugged-in”, so to speak, tweeting live from the conference, and taking notes for this blog post.

The main topic was the effect of acid violence and how it can be prevented. A panel of specialists were seated on either side of Sharmeen, the guest of honor, and they were as follows: Begun Attiya Inayatullah, a prominent MNA involved in drafting the acid attack legislation currently being reviewed in Pakistan, Professor Hamid Hassan, a reconstructive surgeon who heads the burn unit at Benazir Bhutto International Hospital (Rawalpindi), Barrister Naveed Muzaffar Khan, known to defend acid attack victims, Valerie Khan of Acid Survivors Foundation, Samina Naz of Aurat Foundation, and Dr. Khadija Tahir, a psychotherapist who has treated several acid-burn victims.

Ms. Chinoy has been catapulted to fame after her documentary on the trauma experienced by victims of acid violence, titled Saving Face, won the first Oscar ever awarded to a Pakistani. Today’s discussion was largely focused on how her documentary has largely been able to bring this issue into the spotlight, and how now that it is being noticed, we can start to take steps to slowly eradicate it throughout the country.

Acid throwing (acid attack or vitriolage) is a form of violent assault. It is defined as the act of throwing acid onto the body of a person “with the intention of injuring or disfiguring her out of jealousy or revenge”. Perpetrators of these attacks throw acid at their victims, usually at their faces, burning them, and damaging skin tissue, often exposing and sometimes dissolving the bones. The long term consequences of these attacks include blindness and permanent scarring of the face and body.

These attacks are most common in Cambodia, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nearby countries.

 The discussion started off with each of the panelists addressing the topic with respect to their area of specialization. For example, Dr. Khadija Tahir talked about how she had come to understand her patients, and learned that to help them recover from the severe psychological trauma of the attack, you often have to be more than their counselor. You have to be their friend. She spoke of how she’s gone above and beyond, playing board games, taking photographs, even singing with her patients to establish a bond of trust and friendship.

Barrister Khan described two pieces of legislation regarding acid attacks currently in process in Pakistan. The first is a bill, as yet unpassed, which comprehensively addresses the entire issue of acid attacks, prevention mechanisms, response procedures, etc. The second, is a bill that has been passed, which primarily aims to redefine in clearer terms the crime at hand, and has made the crime both non-compoundable, and non-bailable. That mean A) the perpetrator cannot force the victim’s family into a “compromise”, B) there is no chance the attacker can be granted bail immediately, and C) penalties have been enhanced.

Another thing that this second bill does is to limit the length of the trial process. We all know that trials in Pakistan take forever; this is an attempt to shorten the duration of trials and make sure justice is delivered more promptly. The goal here is higher prosecution levels.

If the law does work, according to Valerie Khan, then prosecution levels should go up for at least the next 3 years, as people come forward and the social stigma against reporting these crimes is broken.

 For me, one of the most heart-wrenching moment of the entire session was when Prof. Hamid Hassan talked of how girls who had been victims of acid attacks came in for reconstructive surgery, prosthesis, showing him a photograph of how they used to look, and asking him to mold them back into their old selves.

The entire discussion was relatively anti-acid attacking and pro-awareness, pro-growth, pro-development – pro-Sharmeen, to be honest, except for when a young university student in the audience stood up and asked why she had made the documentary. He said that Pakistan has already received so much bad press. Headlines, headlines, we’ve got them. “Acid violence exists all over the world, but now Pakistan has an Oscar for highlighting its acid violence.” 

 Sharmeen’s answer was prompt and passionate. According to her, the positive headlines outweigh the negative. If Pakistan has acid violence issues, Pakistan is also a country willing to engage in discourse and address its issues. If the West sees this as a depiction of Pakistan’s weakness, then it is also a brave exclamation of Pakistan’s determination and strength that an educated, Muslim, Pakistani woman is producing awareness on such a large scale.

What’re my thoughts? I believe in discussing issues, in discourse, and by discussing them, I believe we can reach solutions. I applaud Ms. Chinoy for her hard work, her passion for the cause, and her success. On the other hand, she is undoubtedly a talented woman, with a penchant for making great documentaries. Her passion to help the weakest and make them stronger motivates me, and it was evident every time she spoke today. I would love to see her put that passion and love into creating a documentary that speaks of the positives of Pakistan, just to show that their are some. I don’t commend hiding flaws, or being ashamed of our need for progress; I just know that our country is not all bad, and I would love if the positives were catapulted on such an international scale as well.

They put my name on the social media team 😀

Standing with the other bloggers, and some of the panelists. From left to right, second row: Dr. Khadija Tahir, Dr. Marilyn Wyatt, Sharmeen Chinoy

Standing with Nameerah (to my left) for another group shot, this tie with Prof. Hamid Hassan in the shot (extreme right)

Some memorable quotes from the session:

  • The only films that make a difference are films that make people uncomfortable. – Sharmeen O. Chinoy
  • Pakistan has a problem of ineffective reporting of the crime – Barrister Khan
  • In Bangladesh, it took 15 years to pass acid attack legislation. How long will it take in Pakistan? – student from Comsats
  • The youth needs to talk. Bring up groups. Talk to policy makers. Get a chief minister. That’s the best help you can give. – Valerie Khan, responding to a question on how the youth can participate
  • The fundamental issue is a lack of good, credible education so it isn’t a sharp instrument of apartheid like it is today. – A gentleman from the audience addressing the panel
  • I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m a human rights activist. I work for a better world, like many people do. – Valerie Khan, responding to a question about why she works for this cause
  • Maybe releasing the film will result in a more lively national discourse. – Sharmeen O. Chinoy, on releasing her film in Pakistan
  • We need to let go of the thought that its the woman’s fault she’s an acid victim. – Sharmeen O. Chinoy
  • We all know the system doesn’t work. The system has failed these women! – Sharmeen O. Chinoy
  • If Saving Face hadn’t won the Oscar award, would we all still be sitting here, addressing this issue?  – A university student in the audience

So, our little blogging team got #acidattack and #HEC trending today in the Pakistani Twittersphere.

Other interesting points:

There was talk of releasing the film in Pakistan to spread awareness and having it dubbed in numerous regional languages like Siraiki, Pushtu, etc.

Some of the perpetrators of acid attacks believe that “the women do this to themselves”, and that “it is their fault”.

A number of questions were raised regarding why there isn’t any significant effort to psychoanalytically approach the mindset of the perpetrator.

Dr. Khadija Tahir mentioned that she actually had to have therapy herself after counseling her first acid-burn victim. In order to integrate these victims back into society, she engages in role-play scenarios with them for months, to make sure they are strong enough to go back into that environment. Her motto is, you are a survivor, not a victim.

Easy availability to high concentration acids will eventually be banned.

Many victims don’t even know they have rights and that acid attacks have been criminalized.

Many victims cannot afford reconstructive surgery. Acid attacks not only destroy skin cells, but nerve ending as well.