LAHORE // Among the most barbarous ways women are attacked in Pakistan, the most excruciating must be by using acid or kerosene oil. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has found that each year between 33 and 40 women are burnt in acid attacks and another 45 are set on fire. The actual figure is much higher but shame and fear prohibit many Pakistani women from reporting the crimes. One of the most prominent groups working to help and highlight the plight of victims is run by a beautician who owns Pakistan's most well-known salons.
Masarrat Misbah, 48, the owner of the Depilex beauty salon chain, has taken up the cause of caring for and rehabilitating the victims through the Depilex Smileagain Foundation. After leaving the hospital the non-governmental organisation looks after the women by trying to arrange further surgery and looking after their welfare. "It is usually a suitor, the in-laws wanting more dowry money or a jealous husband who commit the crime," said Mrs Misbah.
Pakistani private television channels have created the beginnings of a social revolution by broadcasting graphic images of such attacks that until recently were reduced to a small column in a newspaper. The old euphemism carried by the newspaper reports was that a women had been killed or maimed in a "burst stove incident". "I feel embarrassed that as someone working in the business of beauty I did not take notice earlier," said Mrs Misbah.
"I regret now the time I wasted," she added. Haleema, 22, was taken to Lahore's Mayo Hospital recently after being attacked with acid. She lost both of her eyes. "Most of these girls do not survive," said Mrs Misbah. "Those who do are left to rot like vegetables." She showed photographs of women who have been saved with a first round of surgery. But the disfigurements show they need further surgery so that they can perform basic human requirements: noses and eyes that have melted need to be opened so the women can breath properly or see.
Mrs Misbah started work in 2003 when a veiled women stopped her outside her office after work. "She had no eyes and was totally disfigured. I helped her by taking her to hospital for reconstructive surgery. I placed an advertisement in the newspaper asking for victims of acid or kerosene attacks to come forward," she said. After placing the ad, "42 girls walked in here". Mrs Misbah has 400 women registered, but because of the high costs involved has so far only been able to help 93 of them. Most women need 25 to 30 surgical operations that cost, on average, Rs 60,000 (Dh 2,712).
Mrs Misbah got in touch with Smileagain, an Italian non-profit organisation that has provided medical services to burn victims in other countries. The group sends surgeons to Pakistan who work free of charge. Mrs Misbah has also employed eight women who were victims of attacks in her Lahore salon. More work in the 32 salons she owns across the country. Saira Liaqat, 22, Arooj Akbar 28, and Bushra Khan, 35, are three such workers.
"Every person wishes that he or she is beautiful," said Saira Liaqat, one of the victims who now works at the Depilex salon in Lahore. "But in my view, your face is not everything. Real beauty lies inside a person, not outside." Ms Liaqat was not ready to marry and refused impatient overtures from her fiance. "He came to my house and asked me for a glass of water. As I handed it to him, he threw acid in my face," she said. "Now I have had five or six surgeries. The cornea in my eye has melted."
Arooj Akbar, 28, had just got back from her latest operation in Islamabad, so parts of her heavily scarred face were covered with bandages. Her husband, an older, jealous man, had an argument when she wanted to visit her mother. Her husband poured kerosene on Mrs Akbar while she slept and then set her on fire. Her left arm was fused to her body and she had to have her neck restructured. Mrs Akbar's in-laws warned her family not to take her to a hospital in their district of Sarghoda and so they brought her to Lahore.
Bushra Khan, 35, who works in the salon as a tea lady, was asked for money by her husband. When she told him that she had none, her husband and in-laws beat her, then rubbed rags dipped in acid all over her face. "I screamed and so they put the rags in my mouth and burnt a chunk out of my tongue," she said. Her in-laws then hanged her from a ceiling fan and set fire to the house before fleeing. Her neighbours took her to hospital.
The common factor of the attacks is that the majority of perpetrators go free and even those who are temporarily jailed are never convicted due to Pakistan's creaking, corrupt judiciary. "I spent all my money trying to keep them in jail but then they would pay bribes and get out," said Mrs Khan. " But now I need money to try to look better. "My life is over," she said. But the other two women chastised her. "No it has only just started," said Mrs Liaqat. "Don't be a duffer [silly]," said Mrs Akbar.
In the salon where they trim, clean and paint clients' fingernails, cut hair and apply make-up, there are posters of glamorous models. But there is another poster depicting a woman with an acid-ravaged face that reads: "Help us bring back a smile to the face of these survivors." Mrs Misbah said some of her clients had stopped coming "as they did not want to have disfigured girls doing their hair. But I don't care."
She implored the government to employ the victims, suggesting that they work as telephone operators or office clerks. Mrs Misbah started raising funds by asking friends and customers, hospitals and doctors to give rebates and to defer payments. But now she needs more funds to deal with the sheer number of victims. Dr Mozzam Nazeer is founding a reconstructive surgery and burns wing at Lahore's Jinnah hospital. He said the country was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and needed more surgeons, more funds for welfare and a much better co-ordinated system that allowed hospitals and NGOs to co-operate and use funds transparently.
The lives of these women have changed forever. But Mrs Liaqat faces it with astonishing courage. "I cannot possibly think of getting married now. I could not face an abusive husband. I don't want people to pity me. Right now I want to stand on my own feet and earn a living," she said. firstname.lastname@example.org