The woman who died twice; Pakistan and acid attacks

March 26, 2012

There are many ways to make women invisible. One is to ignore them; another is to banish them from public view; and in the case of acid attack victims, to literally efface them. Pakistani acid attack victim Fakhra Yunus seems to have suffered all three, when after being deformed by an acid attack in 2000, she escaped to Italy for treatment where she lived for years, largely forgotten in the country she left behind.

This month, according to Pakistani media reports, she jumped to her death in Italy, guaranteeing that at least for a brief moment, her name would be remembered. Her body was brought back to Pakistan and Pakistan’s Geo News channel ran a story on her accompanied by before-and-after pictures of a once beautiful girl. On Twitter, links to old stories about her were unearthed and exchanged - a detailed profile in Time magazine from 2001, and a story in Newsline from 2011. Activists also launched a  petition seeking justice for acid attack victims.

Fakhra Yunus, a former dancing girl, was catapulted into the feudal elite when she married into one of Pakistan’s best known political families – her former husband Bilal Khar is the cousin of now Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (whose make of handbag alone has garnered more attention recently.) After years of abuse, Fakhra Yunus fled back home where she said her estranged husband caught up with her when she was sleeping and poured acid over her. Bilal Khar was never prosecuted, and insisted after her death that he was not guilty.

After the acid attack, Fakhra Yunus sought  help from Tehmina Durrani, who herself had married into the same family before leaving and writing of her own experience in her autobiography “My Feudal Lord”. Helped by Durrani, she was able to move to Italy where surgeons attempted to restore her face.  Yet in some ways, Durrani wrote in an op-ed, she had already died back in 2000.  When she committed suicide, wrote Durrani, “Fakhra died again to remind the world that she had lived.”

Yet there are many reasons to believe her name  will soon be forgotten again. Pursuing the thread of her story simply takes you across too many of the painful faultlines of Pakistan’s fractured society.

The Pakistani elite has long been accused of being above the law, guilty of corruption and of using violence against more ordinary people with impunity.   Yet it is also – at least on its own terms – a peculiarly besieged elite, for whom the sins of the few should not be blamed on all. Some of its members in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been waging their own battle against the power of the military.  This does not excuse crimes of violence or corruption – it does mean that the country is so polarised that rational debate tends to disappear behind rapidly constructed defensive walls.

Follow the thread far enough down the rabbit hole and you reach the point where accusations of corruption and wrong-doing against the ruling political elite – particularly of President Asif Ali Zardari – are instrumentalised not so much as a means of cleaning up the country and protecting the innocent but of overthrowing the civilian dispensation.  As Pakistani columnist Raza Rumi wrote in an editorial, “corruption, as a slogan, has been used by almost every Pakistani government to undermine political opponents”. In the past it has been popular with the military as an excuse for overthrowing civilian governments; its use now, he wrote, by rising politician Imran Khan (who has promised to end corruption in 90 days)  smacked more of autocracy than democracy.

But if the civilian political elite have a hard time positioning themselves when it comes to championing the rights of people like Fakhra Yunis, so too do those in the religious right and their sympathisers in the military establishment.

While violence against women is not confined to any particular religion or culture, a national obsession with honour or “ghairat” – encouraged by the military and the religious right – makes it easier to champion those who are perceived to be victims of the west rather than of their own people. Women like Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in the United States after being convicted of attempted murder, make for a better cause and fit more easily into an image of Pakistan as a bastion of Islam. And there is, as well – in speaking out for people like Fakhra Yunus – the tricky problem of sympathy with the Afghan Taliban and their fellow insurgents, given their own track record on the the rights of women.

There are, of course, solutions to the problems of violence against women – among them applying the law and holding people to account for their crimes. Pakistani filmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who has just won an Oscar for her documentary on acid attack victims, tweeted a link to a story of a Belgian man jailed for 30 years for attacking his former girlfriend with acid, saying on Twitter that “this is the kind of punishment that will deter acid violence”.

But for that you would need a sound justice system, and the political will to enforce it. Let’s for now carry on down the rabbit hole until we reach the Mad Hatter’s tea party and what has been the most difficult spin-off discussion from the story of Fakhra Yunus – a debate which concerns the way in which Obaid-Chinoy’s image is projected in Pakistan. Glamorous, brave and talented,  she appears to move easily between the Pakistani elite and those of her film subjects so that nobody is quite sure how to claim her.

But as blogger Ahsan Butt wrote in a post about Fakhra Yunus, which included a photo of Hina Rabbani Khar presenting an award to Obaid-Chinoy, there was something not quite right about the image – even though there was nothing to suggest the foreign minister was not herself deeply concerned about acid attack victims. “To recap,” he wrote on his blog, “one acid-burn victim leaped to her death. One acid-burn perpetrator sits comfortably in his home. And one-acid burn perpetrator’s cousin is presenting prizes to a documentarian whose Oscar-winning film was about acid-burning women.”

That might have been it – merely a stray reference in the blogosphere – were it not for news of the launch in Pakistan of Hello! magazine, catering to the elite. According to one report,  Zahraa Saifullah, CEO of Hello! Pakistan, wanted to tap into the “glamorous side of Pakistan”.

“…Saifullah thinks the timing is perfect to showcase Pakistan’s too often hidden treasures, citing Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who recently became the first Pakistani filmmaker to win an Oscar for a documentary about the plight of female victims of acid attacks in the country,” the report said.

“We want to tap into the aesthetically beautiful, the athletic, the fashionable.” it quoted her as saying.

Ouch. An unfortunate choice of words, very likely given in an interview long before Pakistan’s news media was flashing photos of Fakhra Yunus’ deformed face.  But it was a choice of words that made it quickly into the blogosphere. “An acid attack victim is being used by the magazine as a ‘hidden treasure’?” asked Farzana Versey at Cross Connections.

We have drifted a long way from the personal story of Farkha Yunus here. But that was really my point.  She and many nameless others like her will be forgotten, because the challenges of rallying people together to give them protection and justice are just too difficult in such a polarised and fractured society. There are many ways to make women invisible.

(Reuters file photo of Farkha Yunus and Tehmina Durrani at a news conference in 2001)



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