Yesterday, approximately a month after the documentary Saving Face won an Oscar for best short film, a victim of an acid attack, Fakhra Yunus committed suicide. Saving Face explored acid attacks, and how they affect women across the world, including in Pakistan. In short, the film follows two Pakistani women as they reconstruct their lives and bodies with the help of a UK-based plastic surgeon, As some point out, despite the hopes raised by the film, Fakhra’s death is a reality check.
The reasons why Fakhra took her life are complex and cannot be reduced to the denial of justice that occurred with the 2002 acquittal of her ex-husband, Bilal Khar, an ex-member of Parliament and son of a former Punjab governor. The plain fact is that Fakhra was emotionally and physically devastated by her attack; no amount of plastic surgery could ‘save’ her, and heal her trauma. As a prominent Pakistani activist observed after her death,
“At the young age of 22 an acid attack left her only marginally alive, her horrific mutilation disfigured her so completely that she was confronted by open disgust and contempt by everyone who set eyes on her in Pakistan. She became a liability to her own family for whom she was once a source of income”.
A bill was recently passed in the Pakistani parliament that sentences perpetrators of acid attacks to between 14 years and life in prison, and a $14,000 fine. Legal provisions like these cannot, however, prevent the sense of unhappiness and barriers to a normal life that haunt acid attack victims like Fakhra. Her death is a reminder that justice for the victims of acid attacks, and other violent acts against women, must go beyond legal mechanisms and address culturally nuanced questions that affect the recovery process. This includes ensuring access to plastic surgery and rehabilitative measures for women in the poorest segments of society, and addressing the complicated economic and social disincentives that women and their families face when deciding whether to jail the husband-perpetrator. For example, in many South Asian cultures, women without men are socially ostracized.
In parts of Pakistan where societies are based on feudal and tribal patriarchal values, legal measures may not be a sufficient deterrent for those who choose to commit acid attacks, as reclaiming the honor of one’s family or oneself may be worth going to jail. As the case of Bangladesh suggests, regulating the sale of acid might be more effective than trying to establish legal deterrents.
Fakhra Yunus’s suicide shows that for many victims of acid attacks, relief is not about ‘saving face’, but rather about living and dealing with the faces that have become their own. Fakhra Yunus lacked the support to do this. In order to ‘save’ these women, we must engage in a multi-pronged approach that seeks to prevent crimes like these from occurring in the first place.