Pakistan's Acid-Attack Victims Fight Back

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Andrew Biraj / Reuters

An Acid Survivors Foundation of Bangladesh rally in Dhaka, including about 600 acid-attack victims from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Uganda and Nepal

It took just minutes for Naila Farhat to be transformed from a bubbly 13-year-old with plump, rosy cheeks, full lips and a sweet smile into a half-blind, disfigured survivor of acid violence. A spurned suitor, Irshad Hussein, and his friend, Farhat's science teacher Mazhar Hussein, ambushed the girl on her way home from school in 2003 in the Pakistani town of Layyah in Punjab province, and splashed corrosive liquid on her face. "I felt it burning. I couldn't see clearly, but I could hear them laughing," she says. "I wanted justice."

For the next six years, Farhat doggedly pursued her case in the courts, attending every session despite the trauma of being in the same room as her tormentor; the schoolteacher was not charged, after he allegedly bribed local police and fled — a familiar occurrence, according to women's-rights activists who say some police are unwilling or unable to nab offenders. But Irshad Hussein was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and ordered to pay damages of 1.2 million rupees (almost $15,000). He appealed and convinced a High Court to reduce his sentence to four years and 1.1 million rupees, with the proviso that if he agreed to pay the fine, his jail term would be voided and he would be released.

Undeterred, Farhat — with the support of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) — went to the Supreme Court last November, where the original sentence was quickly reinstated, making her the first woman to win an acid-attack case in Pakistan's Supreme Court.

The landmark decision helped shame the Pakistani government into action on the issue. In his ruling, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry urged the adoption of national legislation to prevent and punish acid attacks by controlling the sale of acid and imposing harsh sentences on perpetrators. That, coupled with years of lobbying by women's-rights activists, resulted in the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act, which was recently submitted to parliament.

Accurate statistics on acid attacks in Pakistan are hard to come by — activists are unable to operate in war-torn areas of the country, and fear of retribution and social stigma haunt victims and their families — but the attacks are dismayingly common. The perpetrators are most often relatives or rivals, sometimes for one woman's affections, or, in non-gender-based attacks, opponents provoked by property disputes or other disagreements. Around half the victims of the disfiguring attacks are women, according to ASF chair Valerie Khan, while 26% are men and the remainder are children (most often injured as collateral damage rather than specifically targeted). Khan estimates that there are about 150 attacks a year nationwide. Shahnaz Bokhari, chief coordinator and clinical psychologist at the Progressive Women's Association in Rawalpindi, says her organization has counted 8,000 victims burned by acid as well as kerosene and stoves since 1994. "And that's just from Rawalpindi, Islamabad and a 200-mile radius. I am not talking about in Pakistan [as a whole]," she says. Both activists believe that only some 30% of acid cases are reported. Acid is a readily available and inexpensive weapon; it costs less than a dollar a liter and is often used for household cleaning or for cotton processing in rural areas.

The legislation being debated in parliament would amend Pakistan's penal code by comprehensively defining hurt and disfigurement and specifically listing commonly available acids as dangerous substances. The bill would also increase the maximum penalty for disfigurement from 10 years to life imprisonment and impose hefty fines on the perpetrators as well as require them to pay their victims' medical expenses. Finally, the bill would ban the sale of acids to individuals without a license and increase the penalty for unlawful sales, from 500 rupees (about $6) to 100,000 rupees and/or a year in jail for the first offense.

But the tough measures may not pass. A separate domestic-violence bill has been stuck in the parliament since last summer, held up by an Islamist legislator. "These women's-rights issues are not considered by these religious fanatic groups," says Bokhari, once dubbed the "women's-rights terrorist" by her opponents — a label she wears proudly. "When we talk to these mullahs, they do not even want to communicate with us."

While Khan fears that the draft law may be rejected by the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises parliament and the government on Shari'a law, the Council's chairman, Mohammad Khalid Masood, offers reassurance. The potential conflict, as he sees it, is between conservative elements "who are really fearing that this modernity is making women rebel" and more moderate voices among the ulema (Islamic scholars). He says that some conservatives condone certain instances of domestic violence on the basis of an interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad's view that a man or husband cannot be punished for an injury that results while he is disciplining a family member. But, says Masood, that ignores the Prophet's true meaning. "Our understanding is that these are cases when [injuries] happen by mistake, because the intention [to harm] is not there. ... When you throw acid, you cannot say it is by mistake." The problem, he adds, is that the government is sensitive to political pressure on the street. "And on the street, these people are still conservative."

Despite the difficulties the bill is expected to face, Naila Farhat's case has changed things for acid-attack victims. "Because this happened to me, other women can now go directly to the Supreme Court and be heard," she says. "That makes me very pleased and proud. With my win, there will be others."