By Haby Sondo
“I had a great passion for taking photographs of myself. Whenever my mother would buy me new clothes, I would wear them and take photographs. Now I feel terrible when I look at these. All I can see is how I used to look, and now I have to always hide my face. I know I won’t ever again be as God made me, but hopefully it will get better for me.”
– Victim of an acid attack
This documentary called Saving Face depicts the lives of two women named Zakia and Rukhsana, who, like hundreds of other women in Pakistan, have suffered acid attacks at the hands of their husbands or other men who believe that these women have mistreated or disrespected them. Over 100 acid attacks occur in Pakistan nearly every year, and many more go unreported.
Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon known for his work with burn victims, returns home to Pakistan and begins helping burn victims at the Pakistan Government Free Clinic. He meets Zakia and Rukhsana. The story takes us through the hardships these ladies face, and the journey they are forced to endure to save their faces.
“This is going to be my rebirth,” Zakia says. She used to walk through the crowded markets of Pakistan covering her malformed face with a burqa, adding sunglasses to cover her eyes. Zakia, a 39 year-old woman from Barakahi, Pakistan, suffered a horrific acid attack at the hands of her abusive, alcoholic husband. When Zakia went to file for divorce, her husband stood outside and threw undiluted battery acid — the worst type of acid — on her face as she exited. He was later arrested, and was being tried at the beginning of the documentary.
When asked if he threw acid on Zakia, he responds: “I didn’t do this, this is a conspiracy.” When asked why he wouldn’t allow Zakia to get a divorce, he answered, “She’s mine,” with a sense of definite control over every aspect of his wife’s life. Zakia’s father-in-law supported his son, and said Zakia “got what she deserved.”
Zakia’s acid attack caused her to lose an eye. One side of her face molded into one blurry area. When she was taken to the hospital after the attack, her burn was left to heal on its own with no sort of surgery, and she continued to suffer terrible pains daily as the scar tissue on her face began to tighten, at times making it hard to eat.
“I hope I have a boy. Boys live well. Girls are often unhappy,” Rukhsana says. She was only twenty-five years old when she was attacked by her husband, his mother, and his sister. After her husband threw acid on her, her in-laws decided to top it off by throwing gasoline over her, then lighting her on fire. After her children got sick, she had no money to take care of them, and was forced to return back to the vile group of people she considered her family, who then kept her children away from her as some sort of cruel punishment.
When her husband was asked if he threw acid on his wife, he responded, “She threw gasoline on herself.” He claimed that she has temper tantrums and purposely burned herself, yet he had an acid burn scar on his hand that he claims he received from putting out the fire.
An underlying idea in this documentary is the societal roles women and men play in Pakistan. People often say that women in the middle east are oppressed because their culture does not really encourage them to interact in social situations on the outside world: they follow a set rules of behavioral regulations forcing them to live a life of cooking, cleaning, birthing and taking care of newborn babies. I believe that the Zakia and Ruhksana are oppressed, but not for the same reason. These women are not oppressed because they have to follow traditional rules and regulations, but because they are subject to heinous and despicable acts of torture by husbands who have no fear of punishment. Rukhsana represents the worst case — she goes back to an abusive husband, and gets impregnated by the man who ruined her face and set her on fire. The documentary never reveals if her husband is imprisoned for what he has done to her, and since she became pregnant after the attack, I’m assuming he was able to get away without any consequences for his actions.
Zakia is an anomaly. Instead of staying with her husband after what she has done to her, she decided to defy the rules the Pakistani culture has for women. Her first act of defying these rules is when she went to file for divorce, which women in their society are encouraged not to do. Her second act of defying these rules is when she decided to press for a trial, even though her husband constantly sent her threats not to do so. Sakar Abbas, the attorney who fought Zakia’s case for free, helped to implement a new law. With Abbas’ help, Zakia was able to win her case, causing her husband to get two life sentences. She became the first acid victim ever to have a case tried under the law.
Although this documentary is only 40 minutes long, it reveals much about Pakistan as a country and as a society. Its heartbreaking story ends off on a happy note where at least one of the victims gets her abuser convicted, and is able to walk down the crowded streets of Pakistan without a burqa or sunglasses, but with her new and improved, saved face.