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Archive for February, 2012

Pakistan Goes to the Oscars

Image from the Guardian: Dr. Jawad examines Zakia's Face

Tomorrow is Oscar day. If you are anything like me, you watch as many Oscar-nominated films as humanly possible (while still, of course, maintaining some semblance of a life) and hope your favorite movies walk away with the coveted trophy.

The Oscars are it, the last pit stop in the awards season, the culmination of all that was brilliant in film that year. This year, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy became the first Pakistani to ever garner an Academy Award nomination. Her documentary, Saving Face, co-directed with Daniel Junge, is up for the Oscar in the short documentary category. The film delves into the issue of acid attacks through the lens of the women affected by tragedy and the doctor trying to help them. In Pakistan, there are 100 acid attacks reported each year, but many cases go unreported, the victims instead relegated to the shadows of society.

Saving Face follows two women who chose not to remain silent. Zakia was horrifically injured after her husband, a drug addict, threw undiluted battery acid on her after she tried to divorce him. In the film, Zakia’s husband, who was in jail following the crime, called the charges against him a “conspiracy,” stating that his wife was his and it was “a matter of dignity.” The crimes against Rukhsana, who is just 25 years old, were also perpetrated by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who lit her on fire and locked her in a room. When asked for his account of the attack, her husband Yasir claimed Rukhsana had a temper and high blood pressure and threw acid on herself. He added, “99 percent of [these women] throw acid on themselves.”

The stories are woven into the larger narrative, but also are documented as a journey for retribution. Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon in London, works to help these women become a part of society again. On Zakia, he performed the first surgery of its kind in Pakistan. The Guardian noted, “He used Matriderm to smooth her ravaged face, gave her a pair of glasses with a painted eye and attached a prosthetic nose, allowing her finally to show her face in public.” The results are extraordinary for a woman who had stopped showing her face in public (instead covering it with a burqa and sunglasses), whose life had previously been stolen by her husband’s atrocities.

The beauty of Saving Face was in its very human and nuanced portrayal of all its characters. Zakia was not just a victim of an acid attack, a faceless woman both literally and figuratively. She was a survivor, someone strong enough to fight against the system. During the film, her husband was found guilty of his crimes, receiving two life sentences. Her case was the first to be tried under the new law passed unanimously by Pakistan’s Parliament (and tirelessly pushed forward by the Acid Survivors Foundation and  MNA Marvi Memon). Rukhsana’s story was more bittersweet but reflected the tragic reality facing most acid victims. Many, like Rukhsana, are forced to live with their attackers, mainly for economic reasons.

This speaks to the complexities that exist in societies like Pakistan, where attitudes towards domestic violence (honor-related or not) and victims, are a very large part of the problem. Lack of economic opportunities, social stigma, and safety problems among others all act as significant obstacles for survivors of these attacks. While passing legislation to give their attackers life imprisonment is an important top-down step, there is much more that needs to be done to address the symptoms behind this problem. We need to do more than just be prescriptive.

I watched the film yesterday evening. I expected to cry, to be horrified and indignant for the state of our society, for the crimes committed daily against women in their own homes and by their own family. But I did not expect to also walk away with a deep and lingering sense of hope. Dr. Jawad’s compassion and charm jumped off the screen, and his deep relationships with both Zakia and Rukhsana were touching. After having a baby boy, Rukhsana told Jawad she had named him Mohammed with hopes that he would grow up to be a doctor just like him. Zakia’s son was also a strong but silent character woven beautifully into the narrative. Though he did not speak during the film, he stood constantly by his mother’s side, a small example of how all is not black and white in these stories.

In a segment for NBC News, Sharmeen, who has previously won an Emmy for her documentary Children of the Taliban, told NBC’s Amna Nawaz, “I fell in love the first time we put the cameras on, and it was because I could see the colors, the textures, the language, the beauty and the heartache that could just transcend all barriers.” The purpose of this documentary, she noted to the Washington Post, was to educate people about acid attacks in Pakistan, but also to recalibrate attitudes towards honor violence. She said, “We wanted men to know they think it is manly to throw acid, but in fact it was the most unmanly thing to do.”

As a Pakistani, I am incredibly proud of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her much-deserved nomination. But I am also proud of the characters in the film, who were all larger-than-life in their capacity to love, to fight, and to live. We all can learn many lessons from them. At the end of Saving Face, Dr. Jawad noted, “I’m part of this society that has this disease. I’m doing my bit. Come join the party.”

The Oscars will air tomorrow evening (EST), and Saving Face will be shown on HBO on March 8th. Sharmeen, you have an entire country behind you. And we are all rooting for you.

UPDATE 2045 EST: Sharmeen just won the Oscar – AHHHHH!!! Pakistan’s first Oscar – SO PROUD!

Horrible quality photo, but I was too excited to take a good one of my television!

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Maya Khan & the Art of Slacktivism

Slacktivists! Gah!

Ah, Slacktivists.

You know who I’m talking about. The Facebook users who ‘like’ every page calling for “Da Peaze in da Pakistan” and “We da true Pakis” and then blog angrily about how angry they are whilst tweeting under a pseudonym name like “Pakiz4Ever”. If I get another, “If you want peace and love in #Pakistan, RT this,” I will go Hulk on someone.

This phenomenon has risen as social media platforms have become increasingly more popular. The Express Tribune recently revealed some interesting statistics related to Pakistan and its presence on Facebook. According to the news outlet, over 6 million Pakistanis now use Facebook, making us #26 out of 213 countries that use the platform in the world. Given that internet penetration is just over 10%, Facebook usage is still relatively small (only 32.86% of the total online population), but the demographics are still significant (18-24 years, English-speaking, educated, “liberal”). Meanwhile, the use of Twitter has also increased significantly, though those numbers are harder to come by (one source noted it was over two million).

While I sometimes look upon Slacktivists with disdain & dripping snark (especially for those who do little more than ‘Like’ a page and feel like they are changing the world), there have been two recent cases for how social media activism can make a dent.

The Maya Khan Episode. Social Media: 1 | Vigil-Aunties: 0

For those of you living under a rock, blissfully unaware of Samaa Television‘s Maya Khan and the subsequent uproar, here is the breakdown. On Monday, Samaa TV fired newscaster Khan “after she led a self-styled moral crusade against dating couples that set off a furious public outcry,” reported the NY Times. These “vigil-aunties” (So p-unny! Ha! Ha!) essentially paraded around a park in Karachi, to ‘expose’ young unmarried couples on camera, even demanding to see a marriage certificate. After the show was broadcast on January 17th, “members of the liberal elite vented their fury on social websites at what they said was intrusion. Pakistan’s English-language media also took up the cause,” reported BBC NewsNosheen Abbas. Despite (two) public apologies by Maya Khan, the network dismissed her and her team and terminated the show. CNBC Pakistan (which owns Samaa) head Zafar Siddiqi said the company didn’t “absolve such behavior irrespective of ratings the show was getting.”

The Thori Si Bewafai Episode. Social Media: 1 | A Plus: 0

I first learned about the Thori Si Bewafai (A Little Unfaithfulness) show from Rabayl’s blog Obama Says Do More, in which she wrote about a reality television show on A Plus, a small entertainment channel, which claimed to use hidden cameras to intrude into real people’s personal lives and expose their alleged infidelities. Hosted by Shamoon Abbasi, the show is reminiscent of the ridiculously trashy American reality show, Cheaters. According to an online petition written by the newly created Citizens for Free & Responsible Media (CFRM),

The host of the show Shamoon Abbasi recently announced on his facebook page, that ‘Thori si bewafai’ is actually reenactments and involves paid actors. If in fact, Shamoon Abbassi’s statements are true, then the synopsis on your website and the programme itself, is a clear misrepresentation of the real nature of the show. But even if the programme is based on reenactments, the content of the show is dangerous; it encourages vigilantism and can lead to hate crimes.

Following the online petition and pressure, Abbasi quit the show, stating in a Facebook note, “I would like to clarify one last thing that myself was not comfortable doing this show in the first place and I AM QUITTING IT FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WERE OFFENDED BY THE SHOW!! I apologize to any one who I may have offended.”

The show is now off the air. Another win for social media activism?

Yay and…ye-ay. While both the Maya Khan and the Thora si Bewafai debacles were examples of how social media can be used to pressure mainstream media outlets, it is more a means to an end than an end itself. Journalist Beena Sarwar noted that this campaign incorporated a multi-pronged strategy in which social media wasn’t the only tool used to put pressure on these outlets. According to Beena,

Zafar Siddiqi from CNBC Pakistan responded promptly and positively to an email endorsed by several signatories that included some known names. His response may also have been due to other actions that were being taken: a copy of the petition signed by over 5,000 people was sent to him. Many people also sms’d him and called the Samaa offices at numbers publicised by some activists, who also posted links to the Pemra feedback form that people used to post complaints to. The Chairman Pemra said in an interview that Pemra had received over 350 complaints about that particular show. In addition, there was a threat of legal action against Samaa TV and several activists had begun contacting corporations to lobby them to withdraw commercials from such shows (both actions were stopped after Mr Siddiqi’s second email responding positively to media consumers’ complaints, but both remain real possibilities for future campaigns).

Firings and getting shows that encourage intolerance and vigilantism off-air are a short-term fix, but they ultimately don’t solve the greater issue – the need for independent checks and balances on the media. While Pakistan’s electronic media boom has been an important phenomenon, there also needs to be measures to curb that rein, so that it remains (relatively) responsible. Sahar Habib Ghazi wrote recently for Dawn, “My appeal is that we cannot lose steam with the [Maya Khan] parks episode. We have to continue to build pressure for all news channels to realize that they cannot afford to sacrifice ethical standards for ratings and money.”

For those of us who crowed that Maya Khan was a victory for social media, remember that pressure via platforms may help achieve one-off victories, but they do not cut to the root of the problem. Social media activism, while a tool, can’t achieve that end – it’s too simplistic, too microscopic. As long as you are aware of that limitation, then we’re cool. But if you ask me to RT for Peace, I’ll go Hulk.

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