Here in America (and if you’re an international reader, I imagine this is probably true where you live too), we have a basic expectation that our spouse or romantic partner will treat us with respect. That means that we have a right to expect both our physical bodies and our emotional and mental attributes to be given the consideration they deserve. More than that, we believe that everyone in the world—male or female, regardless of their outward and inward qualities—has the same value. If a person’s partner abuses him or her, that abuse is cause for serious criminal action to be taken against them. In America, for the most part, we are able to take that for granted.
“Saving Face,” airing March 8 on HBO, tells a different story. In Pakistan, increasingly large numbers of women are the victims of brutal attacks committed by their husbands. This documentary follows several women whose husbands or in-laws, dissatisfied with them in some (often fabricated) way, throw acid on their faces, disfiguring them in some cases beyond recognition. And many times, the humiliation continues even after this vicious act takes place. The documentary focuses in particular on a young woman named Zakia, who continues to receive threats from her husband even as she takes him to court for attacking her.
In fact, it is the legal system in Pakistan that has allowed the pain of these women to go on for such a long time. Husbands accused of burning their wives with acid often make up far-fetched, unbelievable stories in order to claim innocence. (One husband interviewed for the documentary claims his wife went crazy and threw gasoline on her own body while standing next to a lit candle; when questioned about a suspicious-looking burn mark on his own hand, the man pauses for a long, telling moment, then states that he got the injury while putting out the fire that his wife had caused.) Because the law is so often prejudiced toward the male defendants, husbands will usually walk away completely acquitted of their horrendous crimes. Besides being totally immoral, it also allows the men to continue seeing and abusing their wives; Zakia’s husband claims in the film that he has refused to divorce Zakia after the attack because she belongs to him. It is easy to see how this creates a situation in which the woman, already disgraced in the eyes of the Pakistani public, is now unable to escape the very position that put her in danger in the first place.
Naturally, this documentary made me angry to watch. But anger of this kind is a good feeling, if not an enjoyable one. Anger on behalf of an issue that needs changing is healthy. In addition, the film provided a surprising amount of hope for the women it followed. I won’t mention specifics—you’ll have to watch for yourself if you want to know what happens—but “Saving Face” focuses on a plastic surgeon who is trying to reconstruct the women’s faces, and the few people in the Pakistani government who have committed to protecting them and seeking justice on their behalf. So in the end, while watching this film will certainly make viewers astonished that there is a part of the world where this happens, it will also show that there is hope, after all, that things will one day change for the better.
“Saving Face” will air on HBO on March 8 and reruns periodically throughout the month. Watch the trailer below: