By Huma Yusuf for The New York Times
On Monday morning, Pakistanis awoke to news that their country had just won its first Oscar. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her co-director Daniel Junge received the award for best documentary in the short-subject category for “Saving Face.” The film chronicles the work of the British-Pakistani plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, who performs reconstructive surgery on women who were attacked with acid.
The media in Pakistan couldn’t get enough of the story. Television channels repeatedly broadcast footage of Obaid-Chinoy receiving her award. Fans posted on their Facebook pages pictures of the filmmaker on the red carpet. Her acceptance speech was tweeted and retweeted: “To all the women in Pakistan who are working for change, don’t give up on your dreams — this is for you.”
Politicians tried to share the limelight. Altaf Hussain, the head of the Karachi-based M.Q.M. party, congratulated Obaid-Chinoy publicly. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that she would be given a civilian award for making Pakistan proud and catalyzing social change.
The chain restaurant Nando’s, which specializes in grilled chicken, even designed an advertising campaign riffing on the documentary’s name: “From one hot chick to another: Thanks for Saving our Face.”
But Obaid-Chinoy’s triumph, a rare piece of good news out of Pakistan, also reveals the extent to which Pakistanis have become accustomed to feeling dejected.
For once, Pakistan is making headlines for a positive achievement, not another terrorist attack, political squabble or natural disaster. For Pakistanis who have been struggling to restore their country’s flailing image, it’s a relief to see a talented, young Pakistani woman receiving a coveted international award — and hobnobbing with George Clooney. As the cultural critic Nadeem F. Paracha put it in a tweet, “Viva la @sharmeenochiony! The pride of Pakistan is in their artistes & intellectuals. Not in bombs and bans!”
But what does it say about a country that it would rejoice at attracting global attention for rampant violations of women’s rights?
Pakistan is the world’s third-most dangerous country for women. Over 150 Pakistani women are the victims of acid attacks each year. Activists for women’s rights claim that only 30 percent of acid cases are reported and that this form of violence is extremely widespread because acid is easily available and inexpensive. Last year, the government passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which imposes on attackers prison terms from 14 years to life and fines of up to one million rupees (about $11,000). But the new law has yet to be rigorously implemented, and attitudes toward women’s rights are far from reformed.
Obaid-Chinoy’s film highlights these problems — hardly a point of pride for Pakistanis.
Once the Oscar high subsides, Pakistanis will have to contend with the fact that their nation remains notorious for its challenges, violence against women included. Then the question will be, can the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who rooted for Obaid-Chinoy at the Academy Awards muster the same enthusiasm to tackle the problems that her work exposes?
Huma Yusuf is a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.