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Documentary Follows Pakistan's Acid Attack Victims


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

There is a brutal form of violence in Pakistan, known as an acid attack. Women are the targets. They are disfigured by the acid, thrown on their faces by men - men they know. The attacks seem unthinkable, but a new documentary presents what happens to a few victims in gruesome detail. That film, "Saving Face," is nominated for an Oscar. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is the filmmaker. We reached her in Karachi.

SHARMEEN OBAID CHINOY: The reason that it happens in certain areas in Pakistan is, if a suitor proposes marriage and a girl turns him down, then he says, well, if I can't have her no one can and he disfigures her face. If a husband feels that his wife has cheated on him or he feels that he wants to take on another wife, and the first wife is not giving him permission, he throws acid on the face. And there's a mindset that it is OK to be violent against women, especially if it's someone in your family. Most times, the women are too scared to press charges against them.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to the actual damage that has been done. And it's very hard to watch. One of the women that you follow, Zakia, shows you photographs before the attack. And we see that she was very pretty.

CHINOY: Zakia, you know, used to pride herself in her looks, actually. She was quite a pretty young woman. And after the attack, Zakia's nose had partially melted. She lost an eye completely. Parts of her right and left side of the face completely melted. So she was so disfigured that actually she could not go out in public without covering her face completely.

And for a long time, Zakia did not leave her house, because she didn't have the courage to go out and face the world. And that's what happens. The perpetrators want the women to suffer. And Zakia has been suffering until she got started getting her surgeries.

MONTAGNE: Well, that is one of the bright spots in this movie, that there is some help. And a plastic surgeon, who you follow, who comes over from London, puts his skills to use on these women. And though he can't bring them back, at least Zakia looks so much better.

CHINOY: Well, this is a story of hope as much as it's a story of despair. This is a story about how there is a problem in Pakistan, but there are Pakistanis who are trying to solve that problem. It's a story of the British Pakistani surgeon who brings his revolutionary plastic surgery skills to try and fix them women as best as he can.

But it's also a story about how other Pakistanis are helping. You know, a strong female lawyer helps fight Zakia's case. And it's the case of how female Pakistani parliamentarians hear testimony of these women, draft a bill and send it to parliament and have it passed unanimously. So it actually is a film that shows that Pakistan can solve its problems if it tackles them from all fronts.

MONTAGNE: This law was passed just last year. And in the end, Pakistan takes a very tough stand - life in prison as punishment. Although, I must say, earlier in the debate a supporter got a lot of applause when he suggested that men who throw acid on women ought to have acid thrown on them.

CHINOY: Yes. But, of course, I feel the parliament played a very crucial role, and especially the female parliamentarians, because here is a country where you have women who are getting acid thrown on their faces and you have women who are in parliament.

And the women in parliament who are empowered and educated have a responsibility to the women who are uneducated. And these women took that responsibility very seriously. And when the bill was presented in parliament, everyone spoke up in favor of it. And it was unanimously passed, in both the parliament as well as in the Senate.

MONTAGNE: Do you think, I mean, the very first case that went to court under this new law was Zakia's. And her husband got two life sentences, which is, well, for her, so gratifying. Do you think that this law will be enforced in that way generally in Pakistan, that other women who have this happen to them will see their attackers put away?

CHINOY: The hope is that the law will be implemented, because, of course, Pakistan has many laws. But now women's rights organizations are pushing to ensure that old cases are reopened, that men are retried, that some of the women do get justice. It's not going to be easy. But at least the first step has been taken towards ensuring that fewer cases of acid are reported every year and fewer women have to go through this.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us. And good luck with the film.

CHINOY: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, along with Daniel Junge, made the documentary "Saving Face." This week it's up for an Oscar and next month, premieres on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.