A Pakistan beauty salon gives acid attack victims a new life by fighting back against acid attacks. Salon owner Musarat Misbah is committed to helping victimized women make-over their lives. Ten years ago a woman walked into the salon asking to look better. Musarat instantly began her campaign by seeking medical care for the attack victim. Now her busy salon in Lahore is a refuge for similar victims – a place of laughter and new beginnings.
Pouring acid on women is a common gender-based violence perpetrated by men in Pakistan as well as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Middle-East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Refusal of sexual advances, refusal of marriage proposals, or insufficient dowry are excuses used by men to justify attacks. Acid has devastating effects on the human body. Attackers target the head and face in order to disfigure, maim and blind the victim. Attacks often leave victims unable to work or even care for their families.
Musarat Misbah has worked to aid the victims of these types of attacks for over a decade. As an independent beautician she is uniquely suited to the task of restoring beauty and faith in life in these women. Through donations and the salon’s profits, she pays for surgeries and treatments to restore as much function as possible. Then she gives the women professional skills they can use to take care of themselves. Many of the woman she has helped work in Musarat’s salon. She has assisted others to open their own businesses.
One of Musarat’s experienced beauticians is Busra Shafi. Bushra was accused by her in-laws of not bringing enough dowry to her marriage. Her step-mother held her down as her husband, brother-in-law and father-in law poured acid on her face and neck. The family then let her suffer without medical care for ten days. “My face swelled so much it was just a big slab of meat,” remembers Bushra. With Musarat’s support, Bushra has undergone 150 surgeries. She can see and hear again, and her nose and tongue were reconstructed so she can breath and speak. Working in the salon gives Bushra a sense of purpose and a way to support herself. The attack victim was given a new life by the beauty salon.
Musarat says many victims of such attacks have no choice but to return to their parental families and are basically left to rot. They are looked at as worthless because they cannot marry or work. Musarat helps these women by making sure they get the necessary medical care, but also by making sure they know their lives still have worth. Not many organizations exist to take care of attack victims. Women familiar with the situation say that Pakistan government sees it as a woman’s issue and prefers to brush it under the rug because the barbaric practice makes Pakistan look bad.
So far this year, 160 acid attacks have been reported to the Pakistani police. Human’s rights workers estimate the true number is much higher since many victims never come forward. They are fearful of reporting men because of retaliation and possibly another acid attack. Although it has been a crime since 1991, the government rarely prosecutes perpetrators of acid attacks. They seem to be an entrenched part of the culture and seen as a family issue rather than a real crime. Many times women are assumed to have caused the attack by their behavior or dress. Just as a woman’s actions prior to being raped are examined, the victims of acid attacks are accused of somehow “asking for it.” In many countries, such as Iran, acid attacks are seen as appropriate punishment for not strictly adhering to the national dress code.
Saad Rasul is a lawyer who is working on new laws to criminalize the attacks and make it easier to prosecute perpetrators. He says that due to the stigma of being a victim, “Many families settle outside court and no one gets convicted.”
Even when an attack is random and unprovoked, women in Pakistan have difficulty getting justice. Huma Shahid was attacked in January just ten days before her wedding. A man threw acid on her outside her house as she returned from lecturing at the university and then escaped on a motorbike. Her life was completely changed. Instead of celebrating a wedding and starting a new life, she has spent months in the hospital, has been in extreme pain, and cannot look at herself in the mirror. The perpetrator is still at large. Huma has taken her case to court and hopes eventual prosecution will help her get her life back together. She says of the prevalence of acid attacks, “It’s a mindset. People believe that these attacks on women are somehow justified. You notice that the majority of cases are women. They are considered a weaker gender.”
Approximately 1,500 acid attacks occur each year. Until governments step up and prosecute acid attacks as a hateful crime, and until society changes its views on women and victims, acid attacks will continue. In Lahore, Musarat Misbah is some women’s best hope for recovery. Her Pakistan beauty salon gives acid attack victims a new life as she continues to fight back.
Opinion By: Rebecca Savastio