"The face is the most important asset of any woman. That is why the face is the first thing a man damages ... Once he knows a woman cannot be his, he wants to make sure that no one else wants her."
Jatoi, Field Manager of the Acid Survivors Foundation
I recently wrote for Women's Views on News about the latest victim of an acid attack, 15 year-old Tuba Tabussum, who had acid thrown on her face by four men as she walked home from school. It's hard to describe the rage and impotence one feels when describing this kind of deliberate and vicious form of violence against women - even harder to come to terms with the fact that acid attacks are a serious problem in the developing world, especially countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and that they are still all too rarely punished.
So it was particularly upsetting to watch the HBO documentary Saving Face, which premiered on British television last week, and which followed the stories of several acid attack victims in Pakistan. The documentary also focused on the work of Dr Mohammad Jawad, a British cosmetic surgeon born in Pakistan who regularly returns to his home country to carry out surgery on acid attack victims. Despite his previous experience helping acid attack victim Katie Piper, Jawad is still visibly shocked by the calculated sadism he hears about. One of his patients, Zakia, describes how her husband drank and took drugs, stole money from her and regularly beat her. When she decided to file for divorce, he followed her to the courthouse. When she emerged, he said "So you want to divorce me? I'll make a spectacle out of you for the whole world to see," and threw acid on her face.
"It took one second to ruin my life completely," says Zakia, who is effectively missing one side of her face after the attack. She is one of the 'lucky' ones though - her husband was caught and is in jail awaiting the case against him. As the Asian Human Rights Commission states [TRIGGER WARNING for distressing images], "perpetrators... have often been able to walk away in total impunity". Zakia's husband is not going quietly though - he claims the allegations against him are a 'conspiracy' and that someone else carried out the attack. His father accuses Zakia of having had an affair, and then chillingly implies that acid attacks are somehow inevitable - "This was bound to happen...women are all over the place".
We're all familiar with this kind of language. Deny, deflect and shift blame - that's what we're used to seeing men do to women all over the world, even in our own supposedly civilised Western culture, when it comes to the horrendous violence that men commit. Men call women crazy, they call them liars, they call them sluts. They imply women's motives are only ever money or a misplaced desire to wreak vengeance upon the male sex. It happens in the UK whenever we talk about rape. I know, because I'm the one who is routinely met with victim-blaming comments whenever I write that sexual violence should only ever be blamed on the perpetrator. So I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that it's happening in the less developed world. The husband of Rukhsana - another victim who says her husband threw acid on her before her sister- and mother-in-law doused her in gasoline and set her on fire - sits in front of the camera with obvious acid burns on his hands and almost grinning, states "She lost her mind and threw [it] on herself". Amazingly, he goes on to say that 99% of women burn victims have inflicted their injuries upon themselves. This is 'gaslighting' at its most sinister - and it's what so often happens to women who dare to speak up about male violence.
"Men's minds have gone really perverse. They think they are God! I wonder why though. They can get away with anything. Women are blamed for every small thing." - Zakia
The documentary goes on to show the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation, and their fight to get new tough legislation passed. Marvi Memon MP is seen listening to survivors' stories and putting forward a bill to the Pakistani parliament that mandates life sentences for all acid attacks. It passes unanimously, and Zakia's husband is the first attacker to be convicted under the new law - he is given two life sentences. Meanwhile Dr Jawad struggles with the limitations of his ability to help victims. Rukhsana, who is forced to remain living with her husband and his relatives who maimed her so badly, is pregnant and cannot have reconstructive surgery on her damaged face. It is frustrating to see her chance at treatment delayed by an unplanned pregnancy which she has no option but to go ahead with, but it is clear that she sees a baby as an ally against her hostile family. She hopes for a boy, saying "A girl's future gets risky after marriage,", a very revealing choice of words considering that Pakistani society views a girl's future as risky if she does not marry. Rukhsana unwittingly reveals how mandatory attachment to a man is no 'protection' at all for a woman in a society that overlooks or downright condones violence against them. After her experience with her husband, no wonder she sees marriage as 'risky'.
"In our society boys live well. A girl's life is often unhappy" - Rukhsana
Dr Jawad also finds he cannot fix Zakia's face to the extent he would like, as her eyeball has been too damaged to save and her eye socket cannot support a glass eye. He has to settle for having a prosthesis made, but the improvement to her appearance and the boost of her husband's conviction are still clearly more than she ever hoped for. Jawad does lose patience with the inefficient Pakistani medical system at times, shouting at bumbling doctors "You idiots can make a nuclear bomb but you can't do this?!". Were he a white doctor we would of course accuse him of racism and cultural imperialism, but since he is a Pakistani native himself, and someone who is making an altruistic gesture in the face of massive apathy, it is easier to sympathise with his frustration.
I'm not sure what the lessons of Saving Face are, and perhaps it's simply too early to tell seeing as the new law in Pakistan was only passed in 2010. Similar measures in Bangladesh - restricting access to acid and introducing tougher punishments for attackers - have apparently brought about great reduction in the number of acid attacks. So perhaps there is hope for a similar change in Pakistan. But I can't help but think a law treats symptoms rather than causes. Acid attacks would not be occurring if women weren't seen as property, or as mentally unstable, intellectually deficient, sexually wild creatures that have to be controlled and subdued. Acid attacks would also not be occurring if a woman's worth was not measured by her beauty and disfigurement treated as a fate worse than death. Acid attacks would not be occurring if society did not insist that women's futures can only be secured via marriage, therefore meaning that to ruin a woman's chance of marriage is to ruin their whole life. And acid attacks would definitely not be occurring if men did not see women as objects they are entitled to. As Zakia's husband responds when asked why he would not grant a divorce, his words are simple but sinister - "I married her. She's mine."
Clearly the ill-treatment of women has roots that go much deeper than any law can reach, and where to start in dismantling a society that so often sanctions misogyny is anyone's guess. But as Dr Jawad states, change begins with number one. "In a way, I'm saving my own face" he says of performing surgery on acid victims. "Because I'm part of the society which has this disease."
You can donate to the Acid Survivors Foundation here.