“I’ll make a spectacle out of you for the world to see,” Pervez promised his wife Zakia, upon discovering that she wanted to divorce him. His statement has echoes of old Hollywood movies and powerful men making promises of stardom to beautiful young women. And yet, for Zakia, this was no promise but a threat that resulted in an acid attack, leaving her face permanently disfigured. She is one of over one hundred acid attacks reported each year in Pakistan, with many more going unreported.
The tragedy of her situation, and others like her, is clear to see but Saving Face is also keen to register the irony of Pervez’s words. For the film works to suggest that Pervez does not need to disfigure his wife to make her a spectacle; she already is one. Regardless of whether we provoke admiration or disgust, Saving Face promotes the notion of women perceived as images to be consumed, pulling us into a world of beautiful women smiling down at us from gigantic billboards as the acid attack victims attempt to rebuild our lives. “The face is the most important asset of any woman,” one aid worker affirms, as she attempts to explain men’s motivation in these acid attacks.
The idea that the film promotes also serves in our quest for answers regarding the terrifying frequency of these acid attacks, generally perpetrated by the husband of the victim. The indoctrination of women as images to be consumed works to dehumanise them completely. To the male gaze, they are merely objects; possessions for which the possessor may use as he pleases. “She’s mine, I’ve married her!” Pervez fervently insists when questioned as to why he disfigured Zakia. Not only does the act of disfigurement offer excruciating pain, it ultimately serves as a reminder. In a society where women have no voice, it reinforces the idea that a woman’s face is not her most important asset, but her only asset.
And yet the film is also keen to convey this not as a cultural problem but a universal one. Originally born in Pakistan, Dr. Mohammed Jawad returns to his home country from London in order to offer his expertise in plastic surgery to acid attack victims. Introducing Jawad in his London office, it becomes all too apparent that the objectification of women is just as prevalent, if not more so, in the West. “They’re going to be bazookas!” Jawad exclaims in awe as he chats to client awaiting breast enhancement surgery. Jawad’s clients work as a striking parallel to those that he treats in Pakistan, between women who offer themselves up to the male gaze and those who have fallen victim to it.
Zakia’s story is ultimately a happy one. The results of her surgery under Jawad make for moving footage and optimism prevails as we follow the successful legislation of new laws against acid crimes. Zakia’s case against her husband is the first to be brought under these new laws and results in Perves being given not one but two life sentences for his horrendous crime.
Amongst this celebration, Saving Face serves us a sobering reminder that this success is merely a first step on a very long road. Acid attack victim Rukhsana, whose progress we follow alongside Zakira’s, is temporarily denied her operation by Dr. Jawad when her pre operation tests reveal she is pregnant. Disfigured by a husband who claims she set fire to herself and walks free, Rukhsana’s tormentor secures his control over her yet again. “I hope I have a boy,” Rukhsana says firmly, predicting correctly. “I wouldn’t want my daughter to face the same plight as me.” Whilst celebrating the progress made in Pakistan, Saving Face’s message is clear. Until the world begins to look beyond women’s faces, these brutal attacks cannot fully be resolved.