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Women

Pakistan's acid attack survivors 'Smile Again'

With no help from the government, survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan struggle to find new meanings in their lives. A beauty salon in Lahore is treating these women, while also encouraging them to smile again.

There is a beauty salon in the central Pakistani city of Lahore that is unlike any other. Here, the employees do not have the complexions you would see on the cover of a fashion magazine. The scarred and charred skin on their faces lets you know they are victims of acid attacks. They greet customers with warm smiles and inform them about the services. These survivors are what make the parlor special - they are the beauticians who help women with similar experiences to their own.

Duplex Smile Again salon was founded by renowned Pakistani human rights activist and makeup artist Musarrat Misbah. She has treated hundreds of acid attack victims.

Misbah takes immense pride in giving a "new life" to these women: "A few years ago, a young girl clad in burka entered my salon and asked for help. I thought she was a beggar so I told her to leave. But she stayed. Then she revealed her almost completely burnt face to me and said, 'You are a beautician, right. Can you fix my face?'"

Smile Again founder Musarrat Misbah (right) with employee Sabira Sultana (left). 
(Photo: Shadi Khan Saif / DW)

Smiling again - Misbah, r, stands with employee Sabira Sultana

After the initial shock of seeing the girl's disfigured face, Misbah told DW, she decided to establish the Smile Again organization, which gives treatment to acid attack survivors in 33 Pakistani cities and provides 50 free cosmetic surgeries annually to people who cannot afford it.

Rights groups in Pakistan estimate that more than a hundred people, mainly women and girls, are disfigured in acid attacks every year, usually in cases of domestic violence. In 2013, around 80 women were attacked. Most incidents, however, go unreported, with women suffering silently at home rather than seeking help. Despite continuous efforts by non-government organizations to stop the crime and pressure the government to hand out strict punishments to the perpetrators, this form of violence against women is still rampant in the country.

Crime and punishment

The issue of acid attacks on women in Pakistan gained international attention in 2012 when Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for her film "Saving Face." The documentary chronicles the lives of two acid attack survivors, Zakia and Rukhsana, and the arduous task of bringing their assailants to justice. It also focuses on the work of British-Pakistani plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, who moved to Pakistan to help restore the faces and lives of acid attack survivors.

In her acceptance speech at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, Chinoy dedicated the award to Pakistan women.

Activists say such films definitely create awareness about the issue but a lot more needs to be done.

In 2012, the Pakistani Senate unanimously passed two bills imposing strict punishments on people who attack women with acid. The passage of these bills was hailed by liberal sections of the country as a historical achievement.

But activists say the government does almost nothing to curb the violence. The main issue, they say, lies in the implementation of the laws.

"Pakistan is facing huge problems; there is an energy crisis, we have health issues, there is a dearth of clean drinking water in the country. Who gives a heck about a burnt girl? When we talk to government officials about these issues, they say: 'How many people are attacked in Pakistan? It's a country with a population of over 180 million," Misbah said.

Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accept the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short Subject for their film Saving Face at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 26, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Gary Hershorn)

Musarrat told DW in 2012 that Chinoy's victory was a 'triumph for all acid attack survivors'

Bushra Shafi, another acid attack survivor working at the Smile Again salon, said she had lost hope in courts after seeking justice for more than six months. She was attacked by her husband for not giving his family a sufficient dowry.

"I used to go to courts every day along with eye witnesses. I arranged for witnesses transportation and food as well, but things were not moving ahead. So I gave up, forgot and moved on," Shafi told DW.

Awareness

Sabira Sultana came to Duplex Smile Again eight years ago as a patient after being attacked with acid by her ex-husband. Now, she is the organization's coordinator.

"At the age of 16, when people start their lives, my life had just ended. The acid attack destroyed my face. I look a tad better now after going through a number of surgeries, but the pain I suffered during the whole time is inexplicable," Sultana told DW.

The 16-year-old Anam - the youngest survivor at the organization - said she found a new life at Misbah's salon. One of her acquaintances - a young man she had known for some time - threw acid on her face in broad daylight, disfiguring her face.

An acid attack survivor gives face treatment to a customer at the Duplex Smile Again salon in Lahore
(Photo: Shadi Khan Said / DW)

Hundreds of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi women are disfigured by acid attacks every year

"The guy's marriage proposal for my sister was rejected by our parents. He followed me after school and threw acid on my face as revenge," Anam told.

Anam believes that more than government and NGOs, religious leaders and clerics can play an effective role in raising awareness about the crime.

"Religious scholars deliver sermons every Friday. Once in a while they should tell people about the rights which Islam and other religions give to women. This needs to be done on a country-wide scale though," said the 16-year-old.