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