Much like other forms of violence against women, acid burning is an extremely personal attack against a woman’s body and soul. And while most forms of violence involve long-term psychological and/or physical consequences, most cuts and bruises fade with time, even though the memories rarely ever do. Acid burning, on the other hand, leaves a visible and tangible reminder of an attack spurred by rage and hate. And in countries where a woman’s chance for a good life depends on her being a wife and mother, the deformity caused by acid burning is especially cruel.
In countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, an alarming number of cases have been reported where men, often angry over a rejected marriage proposal or motivated by a desire to punish a woman for a real or supposed transgression, throw acid into her face, scarring her for life. While the immediate and long-term physical and mental agony of this crime is enough to create a public outcry, women who endure this form of violence are also almost always condemned to live life as an outcast, due to their disfigured appearance and subsequent lack of marriageability in a society that values women based on their position as wife and mother.
Bangladesh is one country where acid violence is common, usually due to disagreements over dowries, refusing a proposal of love or marriage, and disputes over land. Women who survive these attacks must spend the rest of their lives severely disfigured since acid melts skin and sometimes even dissolves bones. Further, since many men will not marry a woman who is disfigured in this way, perpetrators have discovered a sadistically successful way to dominate women and render their lives worthless. It is therefore important to stress at this point that it must become a priority of men and women all over the world to realize that a woman is worth so much more than what she looks like on the outside.
It is disturbing to note that acid attacks are on the rise in Bangladesh and that women burned with acid rarely receive justice. Beena is one such young woman. Eighteen months after 14-year-old Dano threw acid on her when she was 16, the perpetrator remained free. Beena’s family believes that the police were paid off to look the other way in this case. However, this brings up an important question: “Why does the government not act to stop the crime and why do the police seem reluctant to prosecute the alleged attackers?” One answer comes from a plastic surgeon at Bangladesh’s only Burn Unit:
“There is a law in our country, but the law is not applied to the people who are throwing acid. Maybe the people who are throwing the acid are very influential in society so the police, the law officers, they cannot go to them and the poor victims, they are not getting any help from their administration, from the police, I think so. That's why the incidents are progressing more quickly in the absence of the law.”
Despite the fact that in 2002, Bangladesh introduced the death penalty for those convicted of the crime of throwing acid, there still remain many limitations to prosecution of perpetrators. Acid is cheap and easy to access, there is a lack of awareness of the existing laws among the general public, the judicial system is often corrupt, and there is weak enforcement of laws prohibiting this crime. Despite these shortcomings, many non-governmental organizations do assist survivors in accessing medical and mental treatment in their communities.
While this help from community organizations is invaluable, more must be done to prevent these acts from taking place in the first place. It is imperative that society’s views and attitudes towards women change immediately and dramatically. As long as men view women as objects or disposable property that can simply be destroyed and thrown away at the slightest provocation, acid burnings and other heinous forms of violence against women will continue. In addition, the strong and unbiased enforcement of laws, decisive prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, and the sensitive handling of these cases in the media are all integral steps in reducing and ultimately eradicating this crime.
Due to the serious nature of acid burning attacks, many women do not survive, while the women who do survive their injuries live the rest of their lives in constant pain.
Women in several provinces in India have experienced acid burnings at the hands of former lovers who can not handle the end of the relationship. One of the most vicious attacks occurred in Delhi in 2006 when a mother of three children died after her former lover poured acid all over her body and then forced her to drink the liquid. It is clear from the nature of these attacks that they are carried out by men who hate their victim and desire revenge in the most extreme form. Further, most of these attacks are carried out in a well-planned manner after following their victim for a few days and they have full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.
In 2008, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in The New York Times that examined the increasing prevalence of throwing acid on women in several Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, as well as the accompanying lack of attention this crime receives due to women’s inferior status in many parts of this region. Kristof terms this type of attack that leaves women deformed for life as “terrorism that’s personal.” The majority of cases of acid attacks are motivated by a desire to terrorize or dominate their victims and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted because “women usually don’t matter in this part of the world.”
Kristof’s interviews with Naeema Azar and Shahnaz Bukhari in Pakistan illustrate the reality and agony of acid attacks for thousands of women in parts of Asia since the mid-1990s. Before being attacked with acid by her ex-husband, Azar was an attractive mother of three who worked as a real estate agent to support her family. After the attack, she wears a large black cloak over her head and face in order to conceal her missing ears, eyelids, and face with hardly any skin left, only bone. Even though Azar has received six grafts using skin from her leg, she is still unable to close her eyes or mouth, making eating in front of others impossible since it is too embarrassing to have others witness the food falling out of her mouth as she chews. Further, as Azar is now blind, her 12-year-old son must lead her around everywhere she goes.
In addition to the life-long after-effects, the attack itself is forever etched into Azar’s memory, along with that of her children who witnessed the attack. After the divorce (which her ex-husband had agreed to) was final, he came over to say good-bye to the children. Then, according to Azar and her son, he pulled out a bottle of acid and poured it all over his ex-wife’s face. Immediately, Azar began screaming as all the skin on her face began to fall off, revealing the bone underneath, and smoke from her burning skin spiraled around her body. Unable to see and in indescribable agony, Azar ran around wildly and crashed into walls. To add insult to injury, Azar’s ex-husband disappeared after the attack and has never been arrested or punished for his despicable actions.
Since there are many more women like Azar throughout Pakistan, activist Shahnaz Bukhari founded an organization called the Progressive Women’s Association to assist survivors of acid attacks. For Azar, the organization is raising money for a lawyer to strongly encourage police to prosecute her ex-husband and to pay for surgery that might possibly, in the hands of an extremely experienced surgeon, be able to restore sight to one of her eyes.
Bukhari has also documented 7,800 cases cases of women who have been deliberately “burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks” in the Islamabad area since 1994. One factor that may contribute to this high number of acid attacks is the ease with which most people can walk into a shop in much of Asia and buy sulfuring or hydrochloric acid – substances that will destroy a human face. Further, since most victims of these attacks are poor and female, they are virtually voiceless in their society. It is therefore imperative that people throughout the world realize what is happening and help survivors claim their voice.
Huma, 22, is one woman in Pakistan who did receive help and has begun to heal from a horrific 2004 acid attack. One night as she slept outside in the courtyard of her home, a man named Rizwan, 26, threw acid on her face as revenge for her family’s refusal of his marriage proposal. In an interview with IRIN, Huma, though still quite reluctant to discuss her ordeal, said “I just remember feeling something hot on my face, and then the searing pain that followed.” After hearing of her plight, a local philanthropist who has chosen to remain anonymous paid for her treatment and cosmetic surgery in Islamabad. Due to the numerous operations carried out over the course of several months, two years after her attack, Huma was able to look at her own reflection in the mirror and smile.
In order to assist the large number of women in Pakistan like Human who have been disfigured by acid attacks, a new chain of beauty salons have been established. Collaboration between Italian charity Smile Again (which already works with women in India and Bangladesh) and Depilex beauty salons have resulted in the provision of reconstructive plastic surgery for survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan. Under this program, doctors from Italy and France fly into Lahore or Islamabad to perform surgeries. The network of salons also assists burn victims to find a nearby Smile Again centre since many of the survivors do not have the money to travel to major cities or abroad to receive the necessary treatment. In addition to the treatment and rehabilitation offered at these salons, Depilex owner Musarrat Misbah hopes that the salons will also serve as a safe place and support groups for survivors. Further, Depilex also provides vocational training to acid attack survivors in the hope that they will then be able to leave the abusive conditions that lead to the attack in the first place.
Another initiative designed to minimize the effects of acid attacks is to raise public awareness about what to do immediately after being burned. For example, some women do not realize the important of washing the area right after being attacked in order to dilute the acid. The story of Zarina Ramzan perfectly illustrates the need for more education for women in this area:
“It was like burning in hell…I didn't even know acid had been poured on me, let alone that washing it with water would have minimised the damage…The doctor there told me if I had washed the acid away immediately, it would not have penetrated so deep.”
It took Zarina six hours to reach the hospital in southern Punjab. Since then, she has had to endure 11 plastic surgery operations and doctors say she still needs several more.
According to Sameena Afzal, chief coordinator of the Depilex Smile Again organization, “It is very difficult to find definite statistics. But we know the number is high. I have 150 acid and stove burn victims registered with me at the moment for treatment.”
Though it must be stressed that acid attacks comprise only a small number of all cases of violence against women in Pakistan, the fact that these cases are increasing, widespread impunity exists for perpetrators, and the infliction of life-long debilitating effects for victims all necessitate an examination of this phenomenon separate from other forms of violence against women. However, it is also important to note that acid attacks must be understood within the context of the wider issue of violence against women throughout the world. The fact that women are viewed as subordinate and inferior in many countries in Asia where acid burnings occur is a factor that must not be overlooked. It is much easier to destroy “something” you do not consider to be human.
While it is difficult to determine the exact number of women who have been attacked with corrosive acid, hundreds of cases were recorded in the first part of this decade in Pakistan alone. However, numbers do not tell the whole story. Women who have been burned with acid often experience a lifetime of physical and psychological pain. To better understand the consequences of acid attacks, please go to http://alligatorfarm.wordpress.com/category/acid-burning-islamic-women/. This site features pictures the burned faces of women who have been attacked with acid. Please be advised that these photographs are very difficult to look at. However, I have included this link because I think it is extremely important that the world see the pain in the faces of women whose only crime was refusing a marriage proposal or romantic advance, requesting a divorce, or committing some other perceived slight against men who believe it is their right to destroy women.
“Bangladesh: Beena's Story,” Insight News TV (Produced by Ron McCullagh), http://www.insightnewstv.com/c27/ (accessed July 23, 2010).
“Bangladesh Burning: Growing Acid Violence Against Women.” (January 8, 2010). http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2010/01/bangladesh-burning-growing-acid-violence-against-women/ (accessed July 23, 2010).
“Acid attacks are a form of revenge.” (November 20, 2006). http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_acid-attacks-are-a-form-of-revenge_1065188 (accessed July 23, 2010).
Kristof, Nicholas D. “Terrorism That’s Personal.” The New York Times (November 30, 2008). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/opinion/30kristof.html?_r=1 (accessed July 23, 2010).
“Pakistan: Acid Burn Victims Smile Again.” IRIN (April 24, 2006). http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=34245 (accessed July 23, 2010).
Sahar Ali. “Help for Pakistan’s Acid Attack Victims.” BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3114323.stm (accessed July 23, 2010).