Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has made the headlines by bringing home Pakistan’s first-ever Oscar for her documentary short – Saving Face. The film exposes the horrifying brutal acid attacks on women, and the amazing work of the British Pakistani plastic surgeon Mohammed Jawad, who travelled back to his countryof birth to rebuild the victims’ disfigured faces. Obaid-Chinoy dedicated the Oscar to “all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan” and to “all the women in Pakistan who are working for change”.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook and Twitter feeds were soon clogged with overjoyed, patriotically proud Pakistanis, reposting the clip of her Oscar speech, with some suggesting it was an even greater occasion than when Imran Khan raised the cricket World Cup back in 1992.
The Express Tribune, Pakistan’s liberal English-language newspaper, hailed Obaid-Chinoy as a role model, the “face of a more liberal and tolerant Pakistan”. Dawn newspaper wrote of the “welcome change” of seeing Pakistan talked about in a positive context internationally, while the Urdu paper Nawa-e-Waqt even produced a special supplement to honour her win. “The whole of Pakistan prayed for her,” it said. “Her victory made every Pakistani happy.” The government, meanwhile, will present the 33-year-old with a civilian award.
But not everyone is so overjoyed. Alongside the praise are mumbling criticisms from commentators who feel Obaid-Chinoy has brought shame on the country. They complain she is merely reinforcing the west’s negative view of Pakistan. As a Pakistani herself, the dissenters argue, she shouldn’t be promoting it in a bad light.
So far she’s been called a “liberal fascist” and a “traitor”, who is “defaming” Pakistan and “belittling the country” through her choice of subject matter. There are comments like this under newspaper articles: “She has made a career out of trashing Pakistan. I don’t know why so many people are starting to like her, she has done nothing to improve the image of Pakistan,” and blogs asking: “Was there no positive story available in Pakistan for Hollywood to enjoy?”
Sadly, this exasperating attitude is not just focused on Obaid-Chinoy, but is also reflective of a lazy, myopic attitude that a minority of Pakistanis share, the kind that would rather turn a blind eye to its society’s problems than acknowledge serious violation of women’s rights and tackle them. When I visited a women’s shelter in Lahore a few years ago, for instance, to interview women who had fled domestic abuse and forced marriage, I was implored to “write about the good bits, not the bad”. I can’t deny the work of the women’s shelter was indeed fantastic, but ignoring the violence that led these women to seek shelter is irresponsible.
Obaid-Chinoy is no “traitor”; she has honestly opened her eyes to the problems of her home country. It is possible to be patriotic to a nation, and yet critical of it at the same time. As writer Mohsin Hamid tweeted: “Upset Pak[istan] has won its first Oscar for a film ‘critical’ of the country? Your attitude might explain why it’s taken so long.”
In the New York Times, a Pakistani journalist wrote: “What does it say about a country that it would rejoice at attracting global attention for rampant violations of women’s rights? Obaid-Chinoy’s film highlights these problems – hardly a point of pride for Pakistanis.”
But if Pakistanis are proud, it’s because Obaid-Chinoy has created history and in doing so, she’s given her country hope at many levels. There’s hope for young Pakistani girls that they have options to follow a career, no matter how unconventional. There’s hope for Pakistan’s incredible artistic, cultural talent, that it might one day be taken seriously.
But most importantly, there’s hope for women like Zakia and Rukhsana, the women who feature in the film and whose husbands threw acid on them. There’s hope they don’t have to live in shame because of what has been done to them. There’s hope they will find justice, that the men that do this won’t go unpunished. There’s hope that more people like Jawad will come forward, and show victims of this brutality that there is a chance to live again.
And there is hope that after the Oscar euphoria dies down, Pakistan will search its soul and look for ways to better its society for women. After winning her Oscar, Obaid-Chinoy launched an anti-acid attack campaign. Her mother explained that it was to make “our society more humane”. That effort alone is something to be proud of.