When the Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy recently won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for her film Saving Face on female acid attack survivors in Pakistan, I read several articles, blog posts and twitter and facebook statuses with lots of chatter and buzz. It seemed that most user comments fell under two camps: those who praised her work and were proud that a fellow Pakistani had achieved such an honorable award, and those who completely disregarded her work and commented on insignificant, petty, peripheral nonsense. The comments from the latter camp focused on the 'vile sleeveless outfit' she wore at the Oscars as well as the 'despicable' nature of the film she directed which exposed such a gruesome side of her country to the world. "Of course any film which displayed Pakistan in a bad light was sure to win an Oscar," one user wrote. Never mind that the film exposes a very real and disturbing phenomenon.
For those unaware of the term, acid attacks are named as such because this form of domestic violence involves throwing sulfuric or hydrochloric acid (most generally) on a woman's face by a (usually male) family member with the intention of causing bodily injury. These attacks have been on the rise in Pakistan, especially in rural and tribal areas. While acid attacks are also common in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other neighboring countries, it is becoming a widespread phenomenon in Pakistan in domestic situations involving a male family member assaulting a woman for commonplace reasons such as refusal to obey orders or provide sexual satisfaction. The victim often becomes severely disfigured and sometimes blinded, as the skin and bones are dissolved almost instantaneously. While the Pakistani Parliament has recently passed a law where the attacker can face fines or life in prison, tribal elders often turn a blind eye in the areas where such acts are committed, thus allowing silent consent.
While it is common to have opposing views on virtually any topic, Pakistanis tend to be polarized, often to an extreme, on many social and cultural problems faced by the country. There are those who can appreciate, discuss and criticize the ills of their society hoping that through these dialogues things will change for the better, and there are those in the other camp who think that all of the problems with Pakistan are rooted in some grand evil conspiracy by the West or by India to bring it down. The fact that there is a population of Pakistanis that refuses to acknowledge that an issue such as acid burning is one of considerable importance that mandates exposure is indeed sad and indicative of a deep sense of denial. To focus on the sleeveless outfit worn by the director at the ceremony while disregarding the content of the film is absurd. To think that such a topic would be rewarded by a Hollywood award ceremony as part of a grand scheme by America to humiliate, ridicule, or collapse Pakistan is even more absurd.
While there is no doubt that decades of corrupt leadership, military rule, poverty, religious radicalism and foreign intervention has catapulted the country into utter chaos and turmoil, the resulting atmosphere of suspicion, denial and mistrust often serves only to subvert any real progress. Pakistan needs to move forward, and in order to do so its citizens need to rise up beyond the usual conspiracy theories and petty mindset and start working toward real social, political and economic growth. Furthermore, the status of women needs to be at the forefront of this change in the collective mindset of Pakistanis if their country is ever going to rise above its current demise. Instead of focusing on what Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy wore to the Oscars, or labeling her unpatriotic, lets focus on addressing the issue of acid burning that plagues so many women. Lets start educating our young girls so that they can become empowered to live a life where they have choices and don't have to endure such abuses when they become women. More importantly lets be proud of young girls who are able to make something of themselves despite the internalization of patriarchy that is so pervasive in Pakistani society.
While my fingers remain crossed for an eventual Pakistani Spring, I look to our fellow Muslims in the Middle East for inspiration, where the recent wave of revolutions was fueled by women bloggers, activists and professionals. Without their voice and presence, the Arab Spring could not have been possible, but with a female literacy rate of less than thirty percent in Pakistan (while less than three percent of women have access to higher education), a Pakistani Spring must find roots in its investment in women. Before women are even educated and can join the fight against corruption and foreign intervention, they need to be accepted in society as equals rather than mere vehicles of reproduction.
Over a century ago one of the founding fathers of feminism in the Muslim world, Qasim Amin, said that "..the evidence of history confirms and demonstrates that the status of women is inseparably tied to the status of a nation." If Pakistan is to rise in status it needs to cultivate an environment that produces more young women like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy -- who are smart, ambitious, compassionate, and concerned about the growth of their fellow citizens.