The Skin He Lives In


A new documentary film has just become Pakistan’s first Oscar nomination. Priyanka Gill meets its unusual protagonist Dr Mohammad Jawad

 Dr Jawad examines Zakia’s scars
The healer: Dr Jawad examines Zakia’s scars, Photo: Asad Faruqi

DR MOHAMMAD JAWAD is surprisingly relaxed in his Harley Street (London) consulting room — considering he is the subject of Pakistan’s first Oscar nomination. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, the accomplished creators of Saving Face, a film that has been nominated for the Best Documentary Short at the Oscars this year, had earlier won an Emmy for their documentary about the child soldiers of the Taliban in 2010. For Saving Face, Obaid-Chinoy followed the doctor as he returned to his native country Pakistan to reconstruct the faces of two women who were victims of an acid attack.

Zakia, a 39-year-old woman, had acid thrown on her face by her husband when she asked for a divorce. Despite the atrocity, she was forced to return to her married home, as she couldn’t afford to bring her children up. It is a moving, tragic tale. The story is, unfortunately, not an isolated one.

Official figures state that 150 attacks happen every year, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers may be in several hundreds.

Dr Jawad is no stranger to celebrity. His best-known patient is model and television presenter Katie Piper. In 2008, sulphuric acid was thrown on her face, a horrific assault orchestrated by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. She was left blind in one eye and suffered extensive burns. The doctor responsible for her care at the National Health Service Hospital, happened to be Dr Jawad. The story was chronicled in a Channel 4 documentary called Katie: My Beautiful Face. The treatment she underwent was radical and, as a result, quite controversial. The skin of her face was removed and replaced with a substitute called Matriderm to form the foundation for a skin graft. Price was induced into a medical coma for 12 days. But the results were extraordinary. She resumed life as a model and started a foundation to help burn victims. Today, Dr Jawad is a trustee of the foundation.

Jawad admits that at that time he knew next to nothing about the horrific acid attacks that disfigure hundreds of faces in Pakistan every year. After hearing about his results, another doctor told him that such attacks were rife in Pakistan. He was already doing a lot of surgeries on children with cleft palates, he became involved in pro bono surgeries that restore acid attack victims to some normalcy. His disgust with the phenomenon of acid attacks is palpable, as is his zeal to help. “It is an intimate, terrible crime, perpetrated by cowards attacking a woman in a very public manner,” he says, adding, “The disfigurement and scars make her a social outcast. My job is to restore not only her face but give her back her life and confidence.”

Dr Jawad uses the facilities of Indus Hospital in Karachi to conduct free operations four to five times a year. On each trip, he sees 15-odd patients over a few days of intensive surgery. To date, he has helped around 50 women. He intends to keep doing, keep going. He also plans to set up a foundation that can streamline the efforts of the many charities that deal with this issue. “I would like to come up with a standard process that must be followed to ensure optimal treatment for these patients,” he says, “If a man has a heart attack — there is a classic treatment. We must come up with ways to give the patients the best possible care, at the earliest opportunity. This would reduce the need for revisionary operations.” He is also training local surgeons in best practices and techniques. The funding for the operations comes from various NGOs and foundations.

Born in Karachi, Jawad trained at the Civil Hospital, and later at Jinnah Post-Graduate Medical Centre, after graduating from Karachi University. In 1990, he moved to Ireland, joining Cork University Hospital. Plastic surgery was not an automatic choice for the young doctor. “I toyed with orthopaedics for a short while. But it was the instant gratification of plastic surgery that won me over.” He equates his specialisation to Hollywood. “Movies don’t save lives but they definitely enrich them. I enjoy the precision of plastic and reconstructive surgery. If you follow a certain procedure, as long as there are no mistakes, the result is predictable, and the patient sees an instant benefit.” He continues to do the “boobs and lifts” that are the mainstay of plastic surgeons. But he applies the same expertise to help burn victims.

Jawad’s best-known patient is model and TV presenter Katie Piper. In 2008, acid was thrown on her face that left her blind in one eye

HIS EMOTIONAL ties with Pakistan are strong and evident in the affection and exasperation with which he speaks of the country of his birth. The level of corruption, the negligible spending on healthcare and the all-too prevalent domestic violence trouble him immensely. But he speaks of the ‘jugaad’ that well-meaning people do to circumvent the system and provide relief. “As a young doctor in Pakistan, I helped organise banks of life-saving medicine, which would be given free to poor patients and also blood banks where the family or relatives of the patient would have to donate blood to ensure adequate supplies were available. Even drinking water in hospitals was a problem. But we managed,” he says with understated pragmatism.

The Oscar nomination for Saving Face has helped generate awareness about the scale and life-destroying nature of acid attacks. A landmark 2010 law in Pakistan now makes acid attacks punishable with a life sentence. This should hopefully be a deterrent. The first person punished by the law was Zakia’s husband — lending a Hollywood-esque happy ending to the documentary. One hopes that the documentary wins. Dr Jawad will be flying to Los Angeles for the ceremony. “I am excited about it. It has been an extraordinary experience.”

Saving Face will premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on March 28 and 29th in London and will be broadcast on Channel 4 in April. HBO will air the film on 8 March

Priyanka Gill is a freelance journalist and an avid art collector.
She blogs at

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