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PHILANTHROPY

CHANGING FACES Masarrat Misbah is helping Pakistani women who have been scarred by acid attacks BY SHEEMA KHAN

iaz Bano fixes me with her one working eye and describes how her body is being reconstructed, one painful surgery at a time. The 55-year-old sits on a bench at an office in Karachi as she uncovers the right side of her face to expose burnt skin where there was once an ear. “All the way down to my neck, shoulders, my chest, arms, hands and even my back—all burnt,” she says. She is one of the 700 victims of acid attacks being treated by the non-governmental foundation Depilex Smileagain Foundation (DSF), run by beautician and philanthropist Masarrat Misbah. Bano calls Misbah ‘bhaji’ (sister) and says: “Bhaji made me who I am today. I cannot stop praying for her.” Before she ended up at DSF, she did not go out in public because she was so embarrassed about her looks. Today she works at an animal rescue organisation as a cleaner. Her story is depressingly familiar: after the mother-of-four was widowed, she remarried but says her new husband took a dislike to her daughter, then aged 16, so she married her off in a bid to control the situation. Little did she know this would anger him further and result in him disfiguring her in an acid attack. His first attempt was only four days after her daughter’s marriage. He brought her a cup of tea laced with acid, which she did not drink. In his second attempt, he mixed acid in her kohl, or eyeliner, which she failed to use. Finally he came home one afternoon with a bottle of acid in his hand, asked Bano to bring him a glass of water and when she returned, flung the acid over her. Nor is the incident an isolated one. Acid attacks against

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women carried out by their husbands or male relatives have been widespread in Pakistan. Misbah’s foundation has helped multiple victims who have been left scarred for life with some even losing their private parts as a result. Misbah says this practice is usually inflicted upon women who do not give birth to a son. In other instances, men have thrown acid on women who rejected them. “I have a victim who was gang-raped and had acid thrown on her after that,” she says. Although men have faced violence using acid, the numbers are minimal by comparison. “A woman threw acid on her father-in-law because he was trying to rape her. Maybe that is the only solution she found to saving herself,” says Misbah. Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, thinks the problem worsened because “there was a tendency to belittle victims and ignore the attackers” but he says attitudes are changing gradually. “Young men need to accept women as their equals and misogynist characterisations of women must be replaced with recognition that men do not have the right to attack or disfigure women in the name of honour.” Attitudes might be changing—but they undoubtedly have some way to go. When Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen ObaidChinoy won her nation’s first Oscar for her documentary Saving Face about acid attacks, then notched up a second Oscar last year with A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness about honour killings, the reaction was mixed. While some celebrated her success, there were critics in the wings who complained she was a “traitor” who had brought “shame” on her country. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan


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