When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani filmmaker to win an Oscar last weekend, she saw it not just as a rare moment of global pride for her country, but also as a source of hope for its struggling women. "All the women in Pakistan who are working for change," she said on stage while holding aloft the small golden statue, "don't give up on your dreams, this is for you." In the audience, actress Sandra Bullock could be seen applauding as she struggled to suppress her tears.
It was a historic moment in the decades-long struggle to counter violence against women in Pakistan. Saving Face, the winning documentary short, tells the story of hundreds of Pakistani women who endure acid attacks that disfigure their looks and devastate their lives. The attacks have been carried out with impunity for decades. But, as Obaid-Chinoy told TIME in an interview, her film shows that some Pakistanis are now fighting back. "It's a film about acid violence in Pakistan and what these women go through on a day-to-day basis," she says. "But it's not just a film about despair, but also about what people are doing to change that." The heroes of the story include Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British surgeon of Pakistani origin, who abandons his lucrative practice in London to travel to Pakistan in order to help rehabilitate the suffering women, using his own revolutionary techniques.
The idea of the film came about when Jawad's name appeared in the press after he helped the British television presenter Katie Piper recover from an 2009 acid attack by an associate of an ex-boyfriend. Daniel Junge, who co-directed the film with Obaid-Chinoy, asked Jawad if he was familiar with the acid attacks on women in Pakistan. "I'm going there next week," the doctor told the filmmaker. "Why don't you come with me?"
The other heroes of the film are a lawyer, Sarkar Abbas, who represents acid victims for free; Valerie Khan, an activist who helps women find work and provides them with shelter; and a group of female parliamentarians who pushed through a bill that finally criminalized the practice. Marvi Memon, a former parliamentarian who appears in the film, was moved to author the bill after she saw a woman who was fatally burned by acid. "I promised her on her deathbed that I would get this bill passed," says Memon.
Acid attacks chiefly take place in Pakistan's southern Punjab area and parts of Sindh province. The acid is widely available there; no license is required to purchase it. The area also has a combustible mix of high unemployment, very low levels of literacy and a grotesque tolerance in society for violence against women. The courts also enable the crimes with a shockingly low rate of convictions. There are at least 150 cases of acid attacks that are registered each year, but the actual figure is much higher. The majority of women are too fearful to come forward to accuse their attackers.
Almost all of the offenders are either suitors who have been rejected or abusive husbands. In many cases, when men have been turned down, their reaction, Obaid-Chinoy explains, is: "If I can't have her, the no one else can." By hurling acid in their faces, they feel they have avenged their lost pride and denied the women any chance of another marriage. In other cases, the victims are women who asked for a divorce but are turned down. "These men," adds Obaid-Chinoy, "think it's related to their honor." And a third category is domestic violence, where angry men who feel slighted hurl acid on their wives as punishment.
Family pressures often compound the problem. In southern Punjab and parts of Sindh, many women are customarily married within their clan or receive offers of marriage from relatives. When they endure acid attacks, the families can have a disturbing tendency to remain quiet. Many of the women are denied the opportunity to approach an NGO working on the issue and receive help, let alone complain to the police. It is not unusual for these women to be cast into seclusion, their burns seen as a mark of shame. In the worst cases, the families disown the women, leaving them without any financial support.
The Oscar win has won much notice for the issue and a buzz of publicity. Angelina Jolie praised Obaid-Chinoy and said she would watch the documentary, which airs on HBO on March 8. Harvey Weinstein told her that it made him "feel good to know the kind of work we do as filmmakers." When Obaid-Chinoy returns to her native Karachi, she is planning to use the success to launch "an educational outreach service in Pakistan." There will be radio and television public-service announcements raising awareness of the acid attacks. And versions of the film will be dubbed in local languages and played in the affected areas.
Back in Pakistan, the Oscar win has been heralded as a rare piece of good news. All too often accustomed to hearing their country's name associated with acts of terrorism, natural disasters or political instability, Pakistanis were ecstatic to be acknowledged positively in Hollywood. Television news channels played montages of Obaid-Chinoy's acceptance speech, running patriotic songs in the background. But for all the cheer, the Oscar has also laid down a challenge: Will more people now step forward and help those who are working to end this barbarous practice?