Bury her standing

Published: March 29, 2012

The author is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing in Islamabad and holds a degree in Economics and Literature from Bryn Mawr College, US

“When I die, bury me standing, because I’ve spent all my life on my knees”

Gypsy Proverb

On March 17, in Rome, the 35-year-old Fakhra Younus jumped to her death from the sixth floor of her apartment building, simply because she could no longer live with her face, or what was left of it. Fakhra was burnt by acid more than 12 years ago at the hands of her husband, Bilal Khar (a son of the prominent and much-married politician, Mustafa Khar), allegedly because she had dared to first challenge and then leave him.

Although Bilal Khar escaped arrest in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, he was finally captured in 2002 and tried for attempted murder. However, such was the political clout of his father that Bilal remained in prison for only five months and was ultimately acquitted. He then disappeared from the headlines and in all likelihood returned to a life of whatever normalcy he was capable of, relegating Fakhra’s episode to the status of an unfortunate, though ultimately minor mistake.

Fakhra, however, was not quite so fortunate. She had reportedly been a prostitute in Karachi before she married Khar and, therefore, not only did she lack a power base, but also had social prejudice and judgment stacked against her. It was perhaps a combination of these factors that public outrage against the episode remained muted despite wide media coverage. Nawaz Sharif’s government comfortably treated the entire matter as a non-event.

In the meantime, Fakhra, disfigured beyond recognition, indeed beyond all semblance of humanness, moved to Italy with the help of Tehmina Durrani (Mustafa Khar’s ex-wife and one of Bilal Khar’s several step mothers). There, even after undergoing more than 30 reconstructive surgeries and receiving intensive counselling, Fakhra’s face remained nothing more than a mere pulp of flesh. Her psyche became increasingly bruised, scarred and shattered.

In Pakistan, her story, along with those of many others like her, lent momentum to the enactment in December 2011 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2011. This Act amended the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code 1908 to establish the offence of “hurt caused by a corrosive substance” with a stipulated punishment of life imprisonment or imprisonment of 14 years along with a fine of one million rupees. Parliament and the government were justifiably pleased and lauded the passing of this Act as an important breakthrough towards changing the status of women in Pakistan.

Commendable as the law is, it is inadequate to the extent that it focuses entirely on the perpetrator of the acid attack rather than its victim. It fails to appreciate that no fine, no term of imprisonment and not even death can bring back the destroyed bodies and souls of women who were at the receiving end of this crime. At the same time, the passage of the Act gives a false sense of security to lawmakers that they have done their duty towards the issue, and thereby forecloses any further attempt to legislate more holistically in this regard.

Fakhra’s tragic death is a reminder of the insufficiency of our efforts, which although may satisfy any appetite that these women may have for revenge, make no arrangement for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of their lives. It is a reminder that she and others like her are casualties of an unequal fight, rendered powerless not because they have committed a crime or even a wrong, but simply because they are women who are economically dependent on — or as in Fakhra’s case, socially inferior to — the men who attack them.

A comment made by a friend upon hearing of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar is telling in this regard: ‘I cannot commend an award that celebrates Pakistan’s dirty linen,’ he said. It is attitudes like these that condemn these women to live out their lives as social pariahs for the crimes of others. Lasting change in their lives may only be possible when we realise that their suffering reflects the ugliness that underlies the veneer of civility of our society and that they are our responsibility, rather than being our shame.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2012.

Reader Comments (9)

  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 29, 2012 - 11:28PM

    in pakistan there are two laws one for common men and another for rich peoples shame on
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  • Falcon
    Mar 30, 2012 - 12:24AM

    Fakhra’s case is one of the most unfortunate incidents. Hope her soul is at peace after having left this cruel world. It is sad that the society kept the issue on the back burner because of her prior life while political leadership of the time let it slide under the rug.

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  • Abbas from the US
    Mar 30, 2012 - 12:38AM

    A change in the mental attitudes of men towards women is required here. This change cannot be brought in place with the passage of laws, which at the maximum commits the perpetrator of such an act to a lifetime of incarceration, but does nothing to make him realize his act is a serious crime against humanity.
    The truth is in the Pakistani world women are like chattel, belonging to men for their disposal. The solution off course is basic education and generous portion of humane rationality. But considering the availablity and the decision making in the allocation of resource I don’t see the Pakistani male ready to join the civilized world soon.
    Women have to accept their owners right to abuse them and the right to be treated like cattle to be branded for another few generations,

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  • Awais Ch
    Mar 30, 2012 - 12:57AM

    So what’s the solution??? who is responsible at the end???

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  • Max
    Mar 30, 2012 - 5:09AM

    It is a very sad incident and we all should be ashamed of it. Her ex’s family is known for committing such atrocities and no one has brought them to justice. That tells a lot about the social arrangements of the society, partiality of the law, and incompetence of the state.
    Male machoism aside, it also makes one to think of polygamy and the rigid stand of the religious right on such matters.

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  • True North
    Mar 30, 2012 - 7:52AM

    Pakistanis would rather stand up for Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted felon who tried to kill her co-workers. Women who get raped or attacked with acid are not important to Pakistanis.

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  • alicia
    Mar 30, 2012 - 6:36PM

    Well where are all those people who were sending death threats to sharmeen chinoy for her documentary on acid attacks?
    I say keep showing Pakistans dirty linen to the world maybe that will put some shame in the people and make them realize how horrible their attitude towards women is.

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  • Mar 31, 2012 - 4:58AM

    All the changes governing labour laws, health insurance for all, employment security etc were achieved by fighting for them.

    Women’s rights, free maternity service, paid maternity leave, better pays, equal pay for equal work, equal status for women all of this can be acquired by women’s own effort. It is their birth right. It is not a gift, nothing men should bestow or bequeath upon women. Men should stand by their side offering full support.

    The change is coming, it may get ugly. Who said it would happen on a sunny afternoon?
    American women lead the way, protesting already in 1800s.

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  • Apr 1, 2012 - 3:35PM

    Where is the law that can deal with crimes committed by such powerful clan people?

    Existing Pakistani laws are flouted by powerful culprits. One can hardly expect an improvement under this socio-legal set-up..

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