Saving Face: This Oscar-Winning drama about acid-attacks on Pakistani women is harrowing but utterly memorable

by Matt D

saving face

During the course of my work I’m asked to watch a lot of documentaries with some being quite forgettable while others stick with me for months or sometimes years. Saving Face, airing as part of Channel 4’s True Stories strand, will most definitely be in the latter category as its powerful images are bound to stick in my memory. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s film about Pakistani women who are victims of acid attacks won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short last year and now appears on TV in this extended version.

Saving Face opens with several shocking statistics namely that there are over 100 reported acid attacks on Pakistani women every year with many more going unreported. The main motive for these attacks seems to be jealousy as several women tell us that their husbands committed the crime to take away their beauty as they had the philosophy of ‘if I can’t have her nobody can’. The most horrifying opening statement was from a young lady whose teacher made an advance on her when she was just thirteen and when she rejected him attacked her with acid. Obaid-Chinoy then moves the story over to London where we meet Pakistan-born Doctor Mohammed Jawad a pioneering plastic surgeon who, by his own admission, loves boob jobs but is most known for his work on burns victims. Jawad’s name will be familiar to some as he gained notoriety after working on the face of former model Katie Piper who herself was the victim of an acid attack. After Jawad is contacted by the Acid Survivor’s Foundation he heads out to Pakistan to try and improve the lives of the women who have been the victims of these horrible attacks.

We focus on two women in particular the first being 39 year old mother-of-two Zakia whose husband was a drug addict and would beat her regularly. When Zakia finally stood up to him and told her she was leaving his revenge was to attack her with acid to essentially take away her beauty. When Zakia’s husband Pervez is interviewed he claims that when they got married Zakia became his property and that the attack was a matter of dignity. As the interview with Pervez continues he starts to deny that he was responsible in any way for the attack and this was probably at the advice of his lawyers as he has a pending court case. The other main focus of Saving Face is 25 year old Rukhasana who was set on by her husband and his sister as the former poured acid all over and the latter doused her with gasoline in the attempt to set her on fire. Rukhsana’s husband Yasir denies the claims he tried to set her on fire instead saying that she did it herself because she had been depressed for several years. Fearing what would happen to her if she stuck around, Rukhsana then moved into a safe house set up for victims of these attacks where the woman who runs it tells us that these attacks the confidence of these women. She goes on to say that the fact that they’re faces are damaged now means that they’re considered a disgrace and can no longer attend functions such as funerals or weddings.

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As well as following the stories of Zakia and Rukhsana, Saving Face also looks at the fight to get a new legislation through parliament to punish those who commit these attacks. The first decision to be made is what the punishment should be and after suggestions of the death sentence or an acid attack in the town square it is decide that a life sentence should be passed on any man found guilty of one of these attacks. After a tough time trying to be heard one Member of Parliament finally gets to say her piece and after hearing several harrowing stories the bill is unanimously passed meaning that the husbands of Zakia and Rhukhsana could well be given a life sentence for their crimes. This is easier said than done though as the final verdict during Zakia’s husband’s trial keeps getting pushed back as Pervez has hired several powerful lawyers. The fact that the verdict is being delayed is a blow to Zakia who would like closure and you can see she is getting more depressed every time the case is dragged out. However there is light at the end of the tunnel as the absolutely evil Pervez is given two life sentences which Zakia thinks sends a strong message to other men who are considering an acid attack. Rukhsana’s husband also ends up behind bars but not for the attack but rather under suspicion that he kidnapped a young girl and in a way this gives her closure even if she thinks that he may get out at some stage.

Cutting between these stories is Doctor Jawad’s surgery on both ladies with him feeling that both need a rebirth and that his plastic surgery will be a way of achieving this. He does tell Zakia though not to get her hopes up too much and while he is able to repair certain parts of her face she is dealt a bitter blow as he informs her that there is no way for her eye to be restored. Meanwhile Rukhsana discovers that she is pregnant so her reconstructive surgery will have to wait until her baby is born. She wishes, and eventually gives birth to, a baby boy which she is relieved about as she tells us that boys live better in Pakistan than girls to. She eventually resolves to call it Mohammed telling Jawad that she wants her son to grow up to be a doctor just like the man who will soon fix her face.

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As I said in my introduction, Saving Face is a programme that will stick with me throughout the year as the harrowing images of the women’s faces was enough to shock me straight away. I had no idea that this many attacks took place in one year and found the whole process of getting revenge completely ridiculous. As Jawad says at one point, Pakistan really needs to grow up and I agree with him whole-heartedly as these men come across as both immature and dangerous. As well as the scars on the women’s faces the expression on the faces of the husbands will also haunt me as they both seemed utterly remorseless even smiling as they deny the charges brought against them. I’m so glad that, to an extent, the film had a happy ending as the new law was passed and both women got hope for the future. I’m just hoping that the new law does indeed act as a deterrent and less attacks are reported on a yearly basis but I have to say after seeing some of the atrocities committed throughout the documentary I won’t hold my breath.

What did you think to Saving Face? Did you find it as harrowing as I did? Leave Your Comments Below.


  1. jane on January 16, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    i dont have money im not a skilled person but my heart goes out to these beautiful ladies how can i help them

  2. ray davies on January 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    such a great programme,such brave woman who have to put up with the disgusting treatment by their own men….so nice to see that justice is seen to be done to those that inflict it…And where would the world be without people like the great dedicated genuine kind people like the doctor and the solicitors and all involved who freely give their time and expertise to help these wonderfull brave ladies….you are all a great credit to this human race of ours,,,,,,

  3. Carol on January 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    I was sickened to see what damage men are willing to do to women they once loved or wanted. Their smirking ignorance angered me so much I am amazed these men are not beaten or burned by the families of these damaged women. Anyone who did that to my daughter wouldn’t be breathing for very long. Its time that Pakistan grew up, I was horrified to see how long it took for a woman to be heard in the Pakistani Parliament to introduce the bill for life sentences for these men. Its time women in these third world countries were treated as equals, at present they seem to hold less value than farm stock.

  4. Magie on January 17, 2013 at 12:20 am

    I was crying my eyes out.i was stabbed by my Pakistani husband 2 months ago.after watching this program i realised a had a lucky escape.i am from Europe myself and I will never be able to understand why they choose to do awful.i am scared to death now he is gonna do it to me now.

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