The year 2017 has been an unparalleled expressly in terms of acid attacks on women in Pakistan.
One such victim is Beenish Sharif an acid survivor from Lahore who got justice from the Anti-Terrorism Court in her case. Asmat Ullah, the culprit in this case was awarded 60-year imprisonment as cumulative sentence after he was found guilty of throwing acid on his 21-year old ex-fiancée; apart from body burns. Beenish Sharif lost her eyes in the incident.
The Anti-Terrorism Court Judge Sajjad Ahmad awarded the punishment and also imposed fine of Rs 3.9 million, the sentence awarded is 25-year imprisonment two-time under Section 7 of Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and sections 324 and 336/B of Pakistan Penal Code.
This has been a historic decision in the history of courts in Pakistan as obtaining justice is a big battle for victims on acid attacks in the country. Earlier such cases were not dealt under the Anti-terrorism clauses but since revision such cases are heard in ATC and justice is served.
Two organizations working for the rehabilitation of acid survivors in Pakistan are Depilex Smile Again in Lahore and Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan in Islamabad, who are endeavouring to treat acid survivors and help them return to normal life sooner rather than later.
Acid attacks are not limited to Pakistan but they take place almost everywhere in the world. An acid attack survivor from India, Laxmi Agarwal believes, “He changed my face, not my heart. He threw acid on my face not my dreams,” she is considered a hero by many in her country.
Such heroes do exist in Pakistan too. One of them is Suman Ali also from Lahore who had acid thrown on her by her brother-in-law Muhammad Zaraf Iqbal after she repeatedly refused his proposals to marry him. On 5th January 2016 when she was on her way to University, Zafar stopped her and took her to a graveyard, where he again asked her if she would marry him, and on receiving a negative reply, he threw acid on her face. Suman said, “When the attack took place my sister and one brother did not stand by me, while the rest of the family supported me.” According to her sister and brother she was at fault and wanted her to marry her brother-in-law which she refutes as untrue.
Suman’s case was heard in the Anti-Terrorism Courtin Lahore for a year and seven months, and Zafar was awarded 14 years jail on two counts, and Rs two million as fine. During the tenure of hearing she was pressurized in all possible ways to take back the case but she did not budge. She says that “Once they (the opponents) opened fire on my van when I was working with Smile Again Foundation. Luckily no one was hurt but their aim was to frighten me so I would take the case back, I was satisfied that the judge understood who was at fault and that was a huge support for me.”
Apart from this Zafar stole Suman photographs which he photo-shopped to blackmail her to withdraw her case; she said, “I contacted Nighat Daad the founder of Digital Rights Foundation about this issue and she supported me all through. Although the Federal Investigation Agency said that the case does not fall in their jurisdiction Nighat was a blessing for me.”
Nighat speaking to The Nation on Suman's case said, “When we took her case to FIA they said that it doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction as the case is already in court.”
Talking about Suman's psychological condition, Nighat said she was undergoing a lot of stress due to the acid attack and then this issue of pictures made things worse; for hours I had to counsel her and make her believe that she would win the battle.”
Suman did not let the attack weaken her, rather she again started her studies and joined a university in Lahore. Suman said when she was attacked she did not cry because it was no use. “I did not even need psychological care. But when my brother gave a statement against me and the culprit (Zafar) was given bail I lost all hope and I cried a lot. I believed I would not get justice,” she said.
Suman is a real fighter; she did not tell anyone in her university about the attack as she does not want sympathy. She wears a niqab when she leaves the house and wants to work hard to achieve her dreams rather than hide at home. “First I was not allowed by my parents to speak to media but then I realized that I should speak about the punishment as that is my success. The survivor should not be ashamed but the culprit(s) should rot behind bars forever.” Suman went through a painful treatment process, about which she says, “If the scar was around one inch nearly 20 injections were needed to heal it which is very painful. The government should bear the expenses of such treatment as usually girls are from lower class and can’t afford the expenditure.”
Acid is openly sold in the market; even in Beenish’s case the attacker, Asmat Ullah bought acid for hundred rupees. Beenish’s and Suman’s families say that sale of acid should be banned or at least regulated so no more lives are destroyed. “If one has to buy acid, then record of purchaser including CNIC number with the purpose should be recorded by the seller. Until and unless check and balances are not made these attacks will not stop,” they were of the view.
Recently Depilex Smile Again Foundation put forward a demand to ban public sale of acid and corrosive substances in light of the growing incidence of acid attacks against women. According to DSAF data given during a consultative meeting 85% of acid attacks happened in Punjab, mostly in southern Punjab, followed by Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, Balochistan, Islamabad and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. A number of parliamentarians attended this consultative meeting.
Uzma Bashir a psychologist talked of how she helps the victims recover. “Acid attack is a huge trauma for a person, when we get a small pimple on our face we start fretting; just imagine what an acid survivor goes through,” she said.
On the reason behind acid attacks she said most of the time the reason behind acid attacks was a woman’s refusal to continue their relations with men.
About financial issues she said, “(most of) these cases are from low income backgrounds and they face a lot of financial issues. They are usually disappointed with the system as a result this, their self-esteem is damaged.” There are very few cases who regain the confidence to start living once again, Uzma said that maximum fifty percent cases recover after counseling to restart life while majority lose all hope. “We have to gain their confidence before they open up. Even society does not readily accept them leaving them very little space to start living again.”
“Families of acid victims also go through tremendous pressure. They are pressurized with the costs and do not know where to get the victim treated. Some families even blame the victim. But there are families who use this as a means of collecting donations by showing their acid survivor to the world. “The law should take strict action against such cases; Diyat is usually resorted to by people who are rich and should be discouraged. The state should be a party to the case and capital punishment should be awarded,” Uzma said.
Islamic scholar Dr Khalid Zaheer while speaking on acid attacks said punishments against such crimes are mentioned in the Quran; there are two different issues raised in Surah Al-Maida “And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution.” (5:45) According to this one should be punished the same way as he has harmed others.
The second verse from Surah Al-Maida says, “Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land,” (5:33) Any of these can be applied on the criminal. Regarding Suman’s case Dr Khalid Zaheer also said that it is against the teachings of Islam to marry two sisters at the same time, and Zafar’s proposal to Suman was against Islamic teachings and should not have been done in the first place.