Lahore’s Naulakha Bazaar is one of the many shopping hubs of the provincial capital. In sharp contrast to the erstwhile necklace or the pavilion from which it drew its name, the bazaar is now known more for used foreign clothing.
The sheepish clients of second hand apparel haggle with the vendors, while rummaging through the scattered piles scattered around without much care for sizes or colours.
A part of the bazaar attracts another kind of sneaky customer looking for a strange commodity – an innocent looking colourless liquid called Sulphuric Acid or just ‘Acid’. The acid has variety of industrial uses, but off and on, a few citizens utilise it to dispense their own obnoxious brand of justice.
Kaneez Fatima was on the receiving end of just such an act of justice. But, unlike many others, she decided not to suffer in silence.
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A typical Pakistani courtroom is enough to intimidate even a casual observer. Unlike in movies, trials are painfully slow affairs held in cramped rooms, involving fatigued litigants and noisy lawyers.
Women are most usually seen only in cases of familial or divorce matters. The sight of a young, 17-year-old girl in the midst of a courtroom trial is a rarity.
Kaneez Fatima was that rarity.
Her exceptional presence was made more extraordinary by the freshness of her wounds. The teenager nonchalantly walked into the Anti-Terrorist Court Lahore and confidently narrated her trauma. Meanwhile, her onlookers and tormentors kept shooting her questioning, vitriolic glares.
In the lives of impoverished Pakistani women, life changing moments are mostly for the worse, bringing even more misery and pain than before. Kaneez Fatima's moment came on April 24, 2014.
She was about to get married, but no fairytale nor prince charming; not even the mundane yellow dress or green bangles; awaited her fate. All she got was a splash from a bucketful of concentrated Sulphuric Acid, causing immediate chemical burns.
Also read: Fear and Acid
The motive was an old, well-known one. Her hand was asked in marriage by a well-to-do family, but her parents turned down the offer. That did not go down well with the proposer’s father. They did not opt for the 'traditional way' of sorting the matter with a gun or an axe but instead chose a punishment befitting her insolence and refusal:
Being a man of means, the perpetrator hired two hooligans for money to exact revenge. The hired guns executed the plan deftly under the watchful eyes of the main culprit as Kaneez Fatima was returning home from shopping with her elder sister.
The acid did what it was supposed to do: burn, corrode, injure and disfigure.
Forty per cent of her body was burnt and she only miraculously survived on account of having fallen unconscious. The police caught the two hired guns, along with the main accused.
The main accused, Rizwanul Haq, did not seem to have any qualms about the barbaric act.
Defying expectations and withstanding pressure, Kaneez Fatima and her family chose to fight her case, despite the physical and social handicaps, as well as the ordeal of processing the case through the arduous legal system.
The attack did not dent Fatima's resolve.
She crossed the rubicon and narrated the whole episode while pleading for punishment for those responsible. The fear of fierce cross-examination or threat of further violence from the accused, who was out on bail, did not deter her. Neither did the pressure of having been labeled an immoral girl.
In a country, where the cases involving assault on women mostly result in acquittals due to non-prosecution by victims and witnesses, this is by no means a minor step.
Victims of acid attacks all over the country become destined to lead an unusual life of a pariah.
The calls of those handful courageous who knock the doors of justice almost always get lost in legal technicalities and loopholes. These people do not deserve to be left in the wilderness.
Take a look: 42 acid attacks in Punjab; victims await justice
The uneven and skewed fight for our hapless womenfolk continues day in and day out. The threat of being shot, axed, stoned, burnt, raped or bludgeoned any time by anybody from the other half of the population hovers over them perpetually; bucketfuls of prejudice, hatred, ignorance, narrow-mindedness and anger threatening to spill over at any moment.
The Kaneez Fatimas of this world will only get justice once these buckets are snatched from the half that hold them so proudly.