I really wanted to go to bed early one night last week, but then I skimmed the TV listings before heading upstairs and the lead item caught my eye. It was a summary of the 2012 Oscar-winning short documentary film "Saving Face," about “an alarmingly common form of revenge” in Pakistan of “throwing acid on women to disfigure them often for rejected sexual advances or marriage proposals” I watched it on HBO that evening.
"Saving Face" was one of the most riveting—and horrific—films I’ve seen about violence against women. It focuses on two Pakistani women who survived vicious acid attacks: 39-year-old Zakia, whose husband destroyed the entire left side of her face and blinded her left eye after she filed for divorce, and Rukhsana, 25, whose husband and in-laws threw acid and gasoline on her, then set her on fire. Both women said that their marriages had been “bad from the start” and their husbands had regularly abused them.
The acid used to terrorize the women is thrown more often than not by rejected suitors and abusive husbands. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), nitric or sulphuric acid has a catastrophic effect on human skin, causing it “to melt, often exposing the bones below the flesh, sometimes even dissolving the bone.” When the acid is thrown on the eyes, it usually damages them permanently.
The men say that they “own” their wives because they are married to them, and the women have no rights under the law. For decades, the Pakistani men received only the most minimal punishment for their crimes.
"Saving Face" documents how both women received lifesaving treatments and social justice from two different sources: a Pakistani-born plastic surgeon and ASF, headquartered in Bangladesh. The surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who was born in Pakistan, returned to his country from London to treat the victims of what he called his “society’s disease.” In the film, he works to restore Zakia’s eyesight, fashioning a prosthesis that she can wear with a pair of eyeglasses—so she no longer has to wear the long black head-to-toe burqa she feels she must wear to hide her badly scarred face.
The film shows ASF working to pass a law that requires life imprisonment for perpetrators. Zakia’s husband is jailed for his attack on her, but she fears that he will be released after serving only a minimal sentence and retaliate against her.
ASF along with women legislators and activists successfully pass a law in the Pakistani parliament making acid violence punishable by life imprisonment. And in the film, we see Zakia receive justice as her husband receives a “double life sentence.” It’s a profound moment when her lawyer tells her of the victory. She knows she is safe from future violence.
The outcome for Rukhsana is a little different: She bears a son and finds a reason to live again, as family members bar her from seeing her two other older children. She, too, will live her life protected by the new law.
While watching "Saving Face," I thought of the recent Texas law signed by Governor Rick Perry mandating that all women seeking an abortion must have an ultrasound that requires an internal vaginal probe. A Texas physician who performs abortions described the law as “state-sanctioned rape… and demeaning and disrespectful of women.”
Although the most extreme, Texas isn’t the only state passing laws that create new, humiliating obstacles for women seeking abortion. Only a few weeks ago, the Virginia legislature passed a similar statute. When a storm of public pressure struck, Governor Bob McDonnell said he wouldn’t sign it into law if the probe was included. The noxious portion was removed. Then he still signed the bill requiring an ultrasound for all women getting an abortion.
The New York Times recently reported that 20 other states have adopted similar abortion laws requiring providers to conduct ultrasounds first, and Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Mississippi are considering ones with the more invasive procedure. Altogether, a record number of new abortion restrictions were put in place last year: 92 curbs in 24 states.
You might say there’s a big difference between the violence against women in Pakistan, and the abortion laws in the U.S. that force women to get internal vaginal probes before the procedure. But I think there are similarities in both these situations: men are controlling and perpetrating these attacks (whether physically or by controlling policy) and women must fight back to maintain their bodily integrity.
In Pakistan, women were able to get a law passed making acid crimes punishable by life imprisonment. Yet in many states here, women’s personal bodily integrity is restricted when it comes to obtaining legal abortion.
Congress is so polarized right now on issues of women’s reproductive health, as we witnessed with the struggles over funding for Planned Parenthood and insurance coverage for women employed by religious institutions. If we were able to pass a law outlawing these abortion restrictions, it certainly would not pass unanimously.
But we should take heart and follow in the footsteps of our brave Pakistani sisters. We should fight to roll back these restrictive laws and get state governments out of our personal health decisions.
I went to bed thinking of Zakia, Rukhsana, and the courageous work of the Acid Survivors Foundation and promised myself to continue to be inspired by them when I woke up in the morning.