CHAND raat 2015, Karachi: in a dimly lit neighbourhood, an agitated man clenched a vial, as moonlight refracted through the translucent liquid inside it. Stillness eventually broke with an intensifying engine growl and tyre screech overlapping a splash and incessant wailing. The man had successfully hurled acid at his target, 19-year-old Raheela, and inadvertently splattered her infant nephew. As the acid trickled down their faces, skin crumbled and dissolved, leaving scars that would haunt them forever.
Today, Raheela looks in the mirror to find two passages instead of a nose, a crooked slit instead of lips and contorted skin; she suffers from visual and other sensory impairments and breathing difficulties. Raheela is one of 9,340 victims of acid attacks in Pakistan between 1994 and 2018. With escalating acid violence, the government adopted pre-and post-attack measures to curb the crime and mitigate the losses that survivors endure.
Efforts to rehabilitate them were made through programmes like Nai Zindagi, and the Acid and Burn Crime Act, 2018, but deterring the crime itself through increased accountability and extended prison sentences (14 years to lifetime, under the PPC) was ineffective as Pakistan’s frail criminal justice system has a dirty habit of elevating the influential above the law. Victims are deprived of speedy trials as cases are transferred from anti-terrorism to sessions courts and denied justice as lawsuits are ruthlessly dismissed, sentences unfairly reduced and bails wrongfully granted.
One of the culprits in Raheela’s case, a relatively privileged man, fearlessly roams the streets of Karachi while she has had to relocate with her family in search of a threat-free life. Power playing to discriminate against powerless women has been insufferable since 2000, when a former Punjab MPA was exonerated after apparently burning his wife with acid, and again in 2018, when the constitutional petition filed against him after his wife committed suicide was disposed of.
The majority of acid-attack victims are women punished for hurting men’s egos by turning down their proposals or resisting their oppression and misogyny. For their attempts to assert their rights, promised under religion and the law, they are mutilated — immersing them in self-doubt, ridding them of self-worth and isolating them, thereby satisfying their attackers’ urge to avenge rejection and regain patriarchal charge. Our society’s chauvinistic values, promoting aggression as a means to repress and mould women, repeatedly result in human rights violations that our male-dominated legislatures cursorily counter.
The casual sale of this liquid remains a constant threat to women.
It approved the Acid Control Crime and Prevention Act, 2011, amending the Poisons Act to license and monitor sale of acid. Entering buyers’ IDs, signatures and date of purchase may facilitate tracking offenders, however the ridiculous recording of the supposed “purpose for which it (poison/acid) is required” is a superficial shot at controlling acid violence, as retailers are untrained to bear the burden of determining purchasers’ mens rea to commit a criminal offence. Imposing fines and prison terms for unlicensed or unauthorised sales and purchases was also feckless as local markets continued to vend acid, and figures jumped to an estimated 150 attacks per year, setting a record high of 210 victims in 2014.
Striking with an easily acquired weapon such as acid causes irreversible damage with an effortless throw, as opposed to other readily available weapons like knives, which require forceful attacks with precision. Barrister Khadija Siddiqi, a knife attack survivor, says, “Even though the attack traumatised and shattered me physically and emotionally, I was fortunate enough to witness my wounds heal; acid-attack survivors, on the other hand, have to accept permanency of their disfigurement and scars. The ease with which acid can be procured for as little as Rs80 is the real problem.”
Selling this lethal liquid in Pakistan for trivial purposes like unclogging drains threatens the right to life and security. Acknowledging that acid attacks kill or result in permanent disabilities, strip identities, and cause mental and physical agony, the courts condemn them as a crime against the state, a bigger crime than murder, and yet the root cause remains. Over-the-counter sales and unlicensed production, import, transport, storage and use of acid must be strictly prohibited and stringently enforced. Preventative policing and awareness campaigns on women’s rights, gender equity and equality for Pakistani men and women should be launched in a bid to abolish the culture of accepting brutality against women. Creating an egalitarian environment based on impartiality, tolerance and respect is vital. The Quaid may have left Pakistan with the ideology of protecting women, but today, indifference towards these victims of violence taints Pakistan’s image.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2021