26 Nov 2010

Pakistani acid-attack survivors lobby for stricter laws against domestic violence, but face opposition from conservative Islamic scholars

TIME - March 11, 2010

Pakistan's Acid-Attack Victims Fight Back

By Rania Abouzeid / Islamabad

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

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."

This article was found at:



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  1. Film on disfiguring acid attacks gets Women's Day TV premiere

    By Nazima Walji, CBC News March 8, 2012

    This International Women's Day, the U.S. cable network HBO and its Canadian counterpart are airing an Oscar-winning documentary that aims to raise awareness about a barbaric form of domestic violence that affects women in many parts of the world but doesn't get enough attention: acid attacks.

    The annual celebration of women that is marked each March 8 around the world is meant to highlight women's achievements but also to reflect on the current status of women around the world and their ongoing efforts to achieve economic equality and freedom from the many human rights abuses they still face.

    Saving Face, a film directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge that won the Academy Award for best documentary short last month, examines the practice of acid violence — the deliberate use of acid to harm and disfigure another human being, in most cases, women. It depicts stories of the many women in Pakistan who have become victims of this kind of abuse, mostly at the hands of their husbands and other relatives.

    Surgeon repairs acid disfigurement

    Obaid Chinoy, a Pakistani-born journalist who became a Canadian citizen after moving to Toronto in 2004, explained what drove her to make the film in a February 2012 interview with Rick MacInnes-Rae of CBC Radio's Dispatches.

    "I was born and raised in Pakistan," she said. "I had quite an emancipated childhood, and to find that women in Pakistan still have to go through a brutal act such as acid violence really shook me."

    The documentary follows Mohammad Jawad, a Karachi-born, London-based plastic surgeon with the Acid Survivor Foundation, which assists women who have been injured in acid attacks.

    "Dr. Jawad has worked miracles on women who have had acid attacks," Obaid Chinoy said. "In London, he fixed the face of Katie Piper, a very famous model whose boyfriend threw acid on her on the streets of London, and that's when he became interested in victims of acid violence.

    "And when he heard that in his home country of Pakistan, there were such attacks, he started travelling back to Pakistan."

    For the many of victims of acid violence, it is the coming to terms with their new and very different circumstances after the attack that is the most painful and difficult aspect of their experience to adjust to.

    "Ruksana and Zakia, my two main characters in the film, spoke of how they didn't want to leave their home for months after," Obaid Chinoy told MacInnes-Rae. "They felt that they needed to be ashamed. They felt that, somehow, they had caused this, and that's was what was evident in almost all the survivors that we spoke to."

    Women, children targeted

    It's not surprising that the overwhelming number of victims of acid violence are women and children, and their attackers often target the head and face in order to disfigure and blind them.

    Acid attacks are carried out for various reasons, but most commonly, they are committed by the victim's own relatives as retribution for some perceived slight against the family's honour. The effects are always horrific: damaged skin tissue, exposure and dissolving of bones, permanent scarring and blindness.

    Cases of acid violence happen all over the world and have been documented in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East.

    In Pakistan, about 150 women are reported to have been victims of acid violence.

    "Those are documented numbers," Obaid Chinoy said. "But, of course, there are undocumented numbers, because acid violence is usually carried out by members from one's own family, and given the culture that exists in Pakistan, many are hesitant to press charges against the perpetrators. So, we believe there are dozens more that go undocumented."

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    Justice for victims rare

    In Saving Face, viewers meet 39-year-old Zakia, whose husband threw acid on her face because she wanted a divorce, leaving the left side of her face completely melted away.

    Jawad explained her condition in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current on March 2, 2012.

    "Not only [her] eye … eye socket, eyebrows, lid, everything was gone, and she had a severe distortion on the left side of her face," he said.

    Typically, assailants who carry out acid attacks receive minimal punishment, but Zakia's case proved unique, and it became a catalyst for legal and political change in Pakistan.

    "I'll never forget the look on Zakia's face when she heard her husband would be given two life sentences," Obaid Chinoy told Dispatches. "It's so rare for women to get justice in Pakistan. She felt that, finally, someone had done something to say that this was her husband's fault."

    Last year, two pieces of legislation that aim to address violence against women were passed unanimously by Pakistan's parliament: the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill.

    The former recommends sentences of 14 years to life in prison and fines of up to one million rupees (around $20,000) for the perpetrators of acid attacks.

    Step in the right direction
    Obaid Chinoy notes that she can see Pakistanis' views on domestic violence changing.

    "You are finding more women who are vocal, who are speaking out against it," she said. "You're finding women in parliament who are empowered to draft these laws and bring them forward."

    Obaid Chinoy said she applauds Pakistan's current government for addressing women's rights and is hopeful for the future, but she also understands that change will not happen overnight.

    "Legislation is one thing, but there needs to be widespread education about what happens to a woman when acid is thrown on her," she said.

    The film was released in the U.S. in November 2011, but with Thursday's premiere on North American television, a larger audience will now be able to view Saving Face and see firsthand the extreme version of domestic violence that many women in Pakistan face.

    Obaid Chinoy remains positive and is confident that the practice of acid attacks will eventually be eradicated, though it will likely take a long time for that to happen.

    "But if more women were educated, then we are one step closer to putting the country back on its right foot," she said.

    Obaid Chinoy's film is one part of that education and awareness-raising effort that could help ease the suffering of women not just in Pakistan but in other countries where acid attacks happen.