Pakistan’s First Oscar Exposes Women’s Realities, Honors their Strength
March 7, 2012
Last month, the world watched as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy brought home the first ever Oscar win for Pakistan for her short documentary, “Saving Face,” which recounts the brutal story of survivors of revenge acid attacks. Within minutes, social networking sites were abuzz with messages, status updates, and tweets by jubilant Pakistanis – the euphoria was almost tangible. Despite the film’s harrowing subject matter, the day brought immense pride to the people of Pakistan.
For women’s rights activists who have spent decades working for the emancipation of Pakistani women, the moment was perhaps even more poignant. Not only did the Oscar win attract international attention to a critical women’s rights violation, but it also drew attention to the inherent strength of Pakistani women – despite the myriad hardships confronting them on a daily basis and the dismal statistics and images of women that media coverage most often focuses on.
“Saving Face” follows the personal journeys of two acid-attack survivors and their struggle to bring their assailants to justice. In her acceptance speech, Chinoy dedicated the award to the women of Pakistan for their commitment and perseverance in the face of adversity. Raising the Oscar high in her hand, she said, “To all those women in Pakistan working for change: this is for you. Dream on!”
In reality, women’s struggle for equal rights, status, and recognition in Pakistan’s society, in addition to inclusion in actual legislation, has been long and arduous. What began as spontaneous reactions to General Zia ul-Haq’s anti-women laws put in place in the 1980s has developed into a decades-long struggle for equal treatment by both society and law. Early protests were mostly in opposition to the harmful effects that Zia’s martial law and the Islamization campaign had on women, which essentially declared women as secondary citizens. Countering and preventing acid-throwing is one of many issues that have since emerged on the agenda of today’s women’s movement.
After over three decades, the movement is finally beginning to witness results, and the long-standing demands of women rights advocates are gradually being endorsed and met by the government. A series of pro-women bills passed over the last year in particular suggest real change in the policy-making quarters of Pakistan.
On Dec. 12, 2011, the Senate unanimously passed two important bills: the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill and Acid Control and Acid Crimes Prevention Bill. Both bills include significant policies and mandates to protect women from exploitative and discriminatory practices such as forced marriages, honor killings, marriage to the Quran, deprivation of inheritance of property, and inflicting pain and torture by acid throwing. The bills also indicate that culprits found and indicted for committing any of these crimes will be penalized and subject to severe punishments.
The following day, the Senate passed an amendment to the 1996 Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act. The new bill allows the Ministry of Human Rights to utilize allocated funds for the provision of legal and financial assistance to women languishing in jail, which was not previously possible under the original legislation. A study conducted by Society for Advancement of Community Health Education and Training (SACHET) reveals that approximately 7,000 women and children were being held in 75 jails across the country, both those awaiting trial and those convicted. Not only are they living in harrowing conditions, but according to a paper written in 2003 by Shaheen Sardar Ali, a respected academic and former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), nearly 95 percent of the women were being held as a result of false accusations by their close relatives of illicit sexual relationships.
Early last month, the Senate also unanimously passed a bill granting the NCSW autonomous status, which gives it financial and administrative autonomy for the first time, 12 years after its inception. The Commission plays a pivotal role in promoting the social, economic, political, and legal rights of women as provided in the Constitution and in accordance with international declarations, conventions, and agreements related to women. It also assesses the implementation of these laws and makes suitable recommendations and suggests repeals, amendments, or new legislation to eliminate discrimination. In addition to greater autonomy, the new bill also grants the NCSW additional authorities, including the power of inquiry into cases of violence against women.
And, less than a week before Chinoy got her Oscar, another landmark bill was passed in Pakistan, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2012, which makes domestic violence against any vulnerable person, including women and children, an offense carrying jail sentences and fines. A 2009 survey conducted by the Aurat Foundation, Pakistan’s leading women’s rights organization and one of The Asia Foundation’s local partners, found that nearly 80 percent of married women in rural areas fear domestic abuse while 50 percent of women in urban areas report having been subjected to spousal abuse. Until now, the State failed to recognize domestic violence as a crime, instead, deeming it a “family/private matter.”
Since these bills were passed, women activists and others have been discussing whether this legislation is enough by itself to protect women. Implementation is a major stumbling block for any law, but even more so for these pro-women laws and policies that challenge traditionally accepted cultural norms. However, recognizing that challenges remain and require committed efforts on the part of both government and civil society to overcome this should not diminish the significant advances made by this landmark legislation. In the past seven years, seven pro-women laws were passed in Pakistan – a worthy feat by any standard. Given the Pakistani context where the majority of women rights violations continue to occur in the private/family sphere under the garb of culture and tradition, this legislation has, for the first time ever, brought these injustices into the public domain for scrutiny.
Aysha Adil is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Gender Equity Program in Pakistan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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