As a society, what we need is an active re-imagination of problematic gender roles that define our understanding of masculinity and femininity to stem crimes against women

Infinite agony, muted shrieks

by Ammar Shahbazi and Sadia Khatri

The rampant culture of blaming a victim for having being attacked has dissuaded acid attack survivors from speaking up

Thirteen-year-old Zakia should be in school, like most other teenage girls. But her days are spent on a hospital bed in Civil Hospital Karachi’s (CHK) Burns Centre. Her hands are ablack: charred by acid burns. Most of her face is gone.

It all happened in a moment: she was walking home near Ayub Goth, Karachi, when the man whose proposal for marriage she’d refused attacked and threw acid at her. If he couldn’t have her, nor would anyone else.

But in every instant since, Zakia’s life has been about managing pain. She was rushed to CHK soon after the attack and was subsequently hospitalised for treatment of acid burns. But while some wounds can be dressed, but it is often what is said to her that leaves the greatest gashes.

As a nurse began bandaging Zakia’s hand, she pulled tightly on the wound. The 13-year-old pleaded with her to keep it gentle as it hurt immensely.

Zakia said, “Please don’t wrap it tightly, I am like your daughter,” narrates her lawyer Safiuddin Awan, “to which the nurse replied: ‘Don’t you say that! My daughter would not have done anything to get attacked by a man in this fashion’.”

Zakia was stunned. She never thought that she had anything to do with the attack. She wept all night at the hospital bed.

“A victim is made to feel that she is somehow responsible for what happened to her,” says Malka Khan, a regional coordinator with the Aurat Foundation. “When it comes to women acid victims, such behaviour is very common among medical staff. They often treat acid victims with disdain and want to dispose of them as soon as possible.”

Perhaps it is because of such attitudes that those attacked prefer to heal in silence. In fact, Valerie Khan, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation, notes that attacks against women in Pakistan are on the rise again despite the new law criminalising acid attacks.

Indeed, in three out of four reported cases in Karachi, suspects are behind bars and cases are being pursued in court. And yet, the fear is such that most would prefer to evade the topic when approached by the media.

“It isn’t just a case of increased reportage,” she clarifies, “Women are also facing greater violence every day at the hands of their husbands, brothers and fathers.”

Mahnaz Rehman, resident director of the Aurat Foundation, Sindh, lends weight to Khan’s perspective: “There has been a phenomenal increase in acid crimes in the country. Many of these cases, especially those from rural areas, are not reported in the media or to the police. Reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, but they don’t reflect the actual picture.”

The Aurat Foundation director argues that victims and families are reluctant to report due to multiple reasons: the loss of family honour, stigma, and undue publicity. Again, there is talk of how hospital staff tends to blame and shame the victim, even though they are supposed to be the first ones to provide some solace.

During last Ramazan’s lethal heatwave, a 20-year-old divorcee and mother of a four-year-old boy, Sidra, was attacked with acid by a man in her neighbourhood in Baldia Town. Sidra lived with her son, mother and a younger sister; both sisters worked at a private firm to run the household. The attacker had wanted to marry Sidra, but recently divorced and generally dejected with married life, she refused the proposal. Sidra was attacked near her house around 6.30am on Ramazan 4, says her mother Kaniz Bano.

“There has been a phenomenal increase in acid crimes in the country. Many of these cases, especially those from rural areas, are not reported in the media or to the police. Reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, but they don’t reflect the actual picture.”

“When we took her to CHK, their staff insisted that we first report the case to the police and delayed admitting her on that pretext. Sidra kept screaming in agony the burn injuries. We had no men in the house. It was a nightmare negotiating with the staff at Civil Hospital,” narrates Bano.

Sidra’s colleagues from work soon arrived and took care of formalities. Once admitted, it became clear that she had lost her facial features. She was in pain but only after a week, doctors at the CHK Burns Centre insisted that she should leave. Bano was appalled.

“As you know, the city was sizzling at the time and we have a tin-shed house at 14 C … a shanty town in Baldia, I pleaded with them that I cannot take her home as I cannot take care of her wounds,” says the mother. But doctors replied that they are not responsible for them being unable to afford an air-conditioner.

Aurat Foundation’s Malka remembers the day Sidra — prematurely sent home from hospital — appeared at the court to record her statement. “Her face was literally dripping blood.” Later, Sidra’s lawyer and Malka went with the family to the Burns Centre and ensured that she gets proper treatment. She was discharged after a few months.

Officials at the CHK Burns Centre refused to comment.

“The profile of perpetrators shows that in most cases, they are male,” says Valerie Khan. “The most common cause is an escalation of domestic violence.” The exact reason can range from dowry complaints to marriage refusals.

Last week, newspapers reported an attack in Raheem Yaar Khan: a man was angry at his wife for going back to her family. She was tired of his unemployment and wanted to leave him. He showed up at his in-laws house with acid — which unfortunately, Valerie explains, is easily available in most rural areas.

When he attacked her, their two children — seven-and-a-half-years-old and a one-year-old — were next to their mother. Along with the mother, the older child also lost her eyes.

Children are common collateral, explains Khan, since they are often around the mother during the time of attack. Valerie also chairs the National Action Coordination Group to Eradicate Violence Against Children. Most of the younger acid attack survivors, who come seeking help, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It isn’t simple, she explains. While the attacks mostly occur in rural areas, it is not a black and white matter of a feudal mind-set. “Patriarchal norms are established and projected in all set-ups, from the media to politics,” she explains.

She feels that the main problem lies in our definitions of femininity and masculinity. We grow up with certain understandings of gender roles; where men are justified in abusing women, and where the more a woman puts up with violence and misery, the greater is her strength.

“Patriarchy affects women too,” Valerie adds. A woman’s helplessness isn’t her fault: she’s taught to stay silent, and in many cases, to prevent other women from seeking help. Society doesn’t make things easy either, with the amount of social stigma and pressure it levels at acid attacks survivors.

Because parts of their bodies are deformed, their “worth” goes down. But the ones who do fight, Valerie adds, her voice lighting up, “are incredible.” She has worked with countless women who — in many cases — have fought against their own families and husbands.

”They speak up, they know it’s wrong, and they refuse to stand for it.” If one can offer these women help, Valerie shares, they jump on the opportunity. “They are amazing women.”

Shamim is one such woman. “As long as I live, I will not be able to forget the look he had as he threw acid on me,” her voice breaks as she recounts her story.

Shameem was 17 at the time, full of dreams and hopes she’s long abandoned. She was walking home, when a group of boys in the neighbourhood — who were known to harass her routinely — kidnapped her and took her away.

After brutally gang-raping her, they brought her back home and threw her on her doorstep. Before leaving, one of the boys took out a bottle of acid and emptied its contents on Shameem. She lost half her body organs, including an eye. She is still unable to speak straight. “I did not have the strength left in me to fight back or run away,” she shivers.

That was eitht years ago. Years of reconstructive surgery and psychiatric therapy have gotten her life somewhat back on track — but she knows it’s an exception, not the norm.

Shameem now has a job, a husband, and a baby. Her life is in place for the most part. Half of her face is still damaged, and her skin hangs off her face, but Shameem is optimistic. “I have survived the worst of it all,” she says, thanking her stars. While Shameem is grateful for the life she has, she knows she is one of the few.

The biggest thing, for her, is her ability to talk about it now. Not a lot of women do, and not a lot are allowed to. Even for those who muster up the courage -- the process cannot be easy. Shameem thinks of her own story, the boy who paused to give her a look before throwing acid at her. His expression was heartless and cruel, but he knew exactly what he was going to do.

“I will never forget it,” Shameem recalls, once again, “He seemed to be saying: I have got what I wanted.”

Rights versus wrong

Muhammad Aftab Alam traces the legal framework to combat acid crimes in Pakistan

What is ‘acid violence’? It is “the deliberate use of acid to attack another human being,” according to Acid Survivor Trust International. This kind of violence leaves the survivor in permanent agony mostly because of disfigurement of the face or blindness. Acid violence is a worldwide phenomenon. Pakistan is among countries where acid crimes occur disturbingly regularly. According to the Pakistan chapter of Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), over 1,200 cases of acid crimes have been reported in country since 2007 — about 140 cases a year but 2014 was the worst year ever with over 210 cases reported.

Beside socio-economic reasons, this situation can be attributed to the ineffectiveness and failure of the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Lacunas in laws and loopholes in the system aggravate the situation. The failure of CJS has accorded impunity to punishment of influential criminals. The poor and marginalised have become ever more vulnerable. Data on reported acid crimes shows a big majority of the victims are women. Acid crimes against women are an example where access to justice for survivors or heirs of victims is not guaranteed.

Prior to 2011 most acid crimes in Pakistan were registered under Section 335 (Itlaf-i-salahiyy-i-udw) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), 1860. The punishment for this offence is given in section 336 of PPC, which is either qisas, or where qisas is not possible, arsh (compensation) and imprisonment up to 10 years. A few acid attack cases have also been reported as ‘attempt to commit Qatl-i-Amd’ under Section 324 of PPC.

These provisions of PPC are part of the Qisas and Diyat law and technically these offences are compoundable. The offender can evade physical punishment by paying diyat or arsh as compensation to survivor or heirs of victim. Evidence shows that in most of cases the influential and the rich use money to avoid punishment. This ‘compoundable’ nature of the offences has resulted in a loophole in access to justice to the poor and the marginalised victims / survivors of acid crimes.

1,200 cases of acid crimes have been reported in country since 2007

The civil society, unsurprisingly, has been raising its voice against the growing trend of acid crimes against women and increasing impunity of the offenders. Demand is growing for special legislation with teeth to combat acid crimes in Pakistan.

Led by ASF Pakistan, various civil society sections have already drafted a bill for the prevention of acid crimes for the consideration of the nation’s lawmakers. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has also taken took notice and directed the government to ‘consider proper legislation for acid crimes’.

In response to civil society efforts, the government passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2011 (Act XXV of 2011) and added two new sections (336A and 336B) in the PPC. Section 336A defines acid crimes and declares them as ‘non-compoundable’ offences. Section 336B provides for the punishment of life imprisonment or 14 years in jail (simple or rigorous) along with a minimum fine of Rs1 million.

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has observed that number of cases registered after the amendment has increased as compared to the years before 2011. However, it has also observed that most of the cases are still pending in various courts either due to incomplete challan (investigation report) or for want of sufficient evidence to prove allegations.

In this respect Kamran Adil, a senior officer in Punjab Police, is of the view, “No institutionalised awareness has been created among the concerned officials particularly at the thana level in this regard. Related procedural laws such as Police Rules 1934 and provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code 1898 dealing with the reporting, registration and investigation of such crimes have not been revised.”

According to Adil, “Theoretically, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have enacted specific laws requiring medical officers to treat ‘injured person without delay on priority basis over all other medico-legal formalities.” However, lack of awareness among concerned officials is not letting any change materialise in practice, he adds.

In such a situation, according to Khawar Mumtaz, the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) Chairperson, “There is need of a comprehensive law, which in addition to curbing acid crimes, must regulate the sale of corrosive substances — currently being regulated through outdated the Poison Act 1919 — and has provisions for rehabilitation of survivors. Moreover, a victim of acid crime needs immediate special medical treatment; therefore, registration of a case should follow admission in treatment facility.” She stresses that the police need to be aware of the law.

Besides reforming procedures on reporting, investigation and prosecution of acid crimes, the role of a citizen-led mechanism such as the Citizens-Police Liaison Committees (CPLCs) should be instituted in facilitation of reporting these heinous crimes to police, get them registered and to provide protection and justice to victims.

The author is a legal expert and tweets at @aftabalam_77

Regulating acid sale: the regional experience

Madiha Latif

Number of incidents reported according to cities (past six months)

Acid is an essential in agricultural economies, and as such, every neighbourhood grocery store in rural areas tends to store acid for sale. This dynamic also helps explain why the incidence of acid crime in particularly high in southern Punjab.

With no effective mechanism to control the sale of acid in Pakistan, here is a look at the measures instituted by neighbouring countries:


The year 2002 brought an unprecedented increase in the number of acid attacks. Approximately 500 victims were recorded that year. As a result two separate legislations were passed that year; one that addressed punishments for perpetrators and another that strengthened the regulation on the sale of acid. The punishment was set as death penalty and the second legislation made it obligatory to procure a license to purchase acid. According to The Acid Survivors Foundation Bangladesh Chapter due to the legislation, the incidence of acid violence has decreased by 80 per cent. It is evident by the fact that only 69 cases were recorded in the country in the year 2012.


In 2014, there were 349 recorded attacks, three times higher than the numbers of 2013, and four times higher than 2010. Similar patterns as of Bangladesh emerge in India as well, with land, property or business disputes forming approximately 20pc of cases in India, according to the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice Report.

Thus, there has been a push in India to amend legislation regarding acid crimes. India passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013, inserting Section 326A and 326B in the penal code, which specifically addresses acid crime. Compensation for acid survivors was also inserted in CrPC of India, which obligates the state government to compensate survivors, along with provisions for free medical treatment of survivors (Secion 357B, Section 357C). However, figures of 2014 do not show any major impact of the change in law; it is important that when legislation is passed, it must be implemented as well.

Learning to smile again

by Maryam Sohail

For those seeking hope, there is rehabilitation help available

She softly whispers “no” and he can’t tolerate it. How dare she say no to him? He’s her husband; he has every right over her and she absolutely cannot disobey his command. Flushed with rage, he grabs the acid bottle from the drawer he keeps it hidden in, and seizes her under his arm. Then, leisurely yet viciously, he empties the bottle onto her face. Once he’s done he exits the room, satisfied, leaving her lying on the ground howling in pain.

As she touches her face gently, she can feel her hollow eye sockets; her eyes have melted away. The same pair of eyes she adored and always received ample compliments for. As she moves her hand further down, she can feel her nose melt away and her lips sizzle under the heat of the acid. She screams her lungs out, shouting for help, but nobody dares enter. Agonizing, excruciating, gut wrenching; no word can place the pain she is feeling. He has finished her life, leaving her with no purpose to live. Her disobedience resulted in her distortion; even death isn’t equivalent to the agony he has given her. She bawls even loudly, then curls up on the floor, hides her face in her hands and continues to sob.

It was one such survivor’s account that moved beautician and entrepreneur Mussarat Misbah in 2003 to help rehabilitate victims of acid attacks. This victim approached Misbah and unveiled herself; the individual before her was a woman without a face. She had lost her eyes, her nose and her neck was contracted to her chest. This interaction, Misbah says, “changed her life.”

The beautician then founded the Depilex Smile Again Foundationin Lahore, Pakistan, to help victims become self-reliant members of the community. The foundation’s aim is to provide the women with medical and psychological care and help them gain confidence and employment.

Misbah then proceeded to set up a beauty salon to help rehabilitate women survivors of acid attacks. Over the last decade, Misbah has helped around 600 women, with most electing to be trained as beauticians as they feel safe in a women-only world.

While many women are condemned to a life that is more torturous than death, work carried out by Misbah’s foundation shows that hope and help are still available. Long may it continue.

Victims to survivors

Madiha Latif writes about those who have rebuilt their lives and have reintegrated into society

Shameem Akhtar

Shameem was a normal 17-year-old girl, full of aspirations and hope, looking forward to the future. However, she faced harassment issues with some boys living nearby. She had told them off multiple times, but did not anticipate what would follow. She was walking home, and kidnapped enroute by the same boys who harassed her. She was raped, and before leaving her outside her house, the leader of the group threw acid all over her. It has been eight years since this tragic incident. But today, after a series of reconstructive surgeries and psychiatric therapy, she has regained her confidence and will in life. She is now married and a mother of a child and working at a saloon as a trained beautician.

Mamoona Ghaffar

Mamoona was with her brother at a local market, when she became a victim of an acid crime. Her brother had had a squabble with some local boys over a petty issue, and they had come to attack him. Her brother told her to run home when he spotted the boys and as she turned, one of the boys threw acid on her face, causing severe burns to her face, neck and arms. She was in class eight when this heinous incident took place. Since then, she has undergone multiple surgeries and checkups. She has completed her matriculation as well as a computer course. She is currently studying to become a nurse at a local hospital.

Anum Shahzadi

Like Shameem, Anum was also a 17-year-old, who was upbeat and outgoing. A student at a madressah, she was learning to be a Hafiz-i-Quran, and was also pursuing academic education. She was enrolled in Matriculation when she was attacked by a boy in her neighborhood, on her way home. The acid caused severe damage to her face and her arms. With the help of the DSF, she completed her FA and is also a trained beautician working in a leading parlour. Anum recently got married and now all she hopes for is to return to Gujranwala and open her own beauty salon there.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 20th, 2015



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