I felt a pang of shame and weakness at my inability to look squarely at the image of Fakhra Younus’ acid mutilated face. I finally braced myself to do so and did it for some length of time. Let me suggest that the adult readership of these words do the same, look at that face for at least a minute or two and take it in. Admittedly, it does not make for light viewership but it does concentrate one’s mind about what stares us in our face. Mind you, once that image is lodged into your head, it is impossible to dislodge.
In Pakistan, one often has to physically die to get our attention. I wonder if Fakhra Younus knew that she had so many people this concerned about her predicament, she might have aborted her plan. Except, the circularity here is that had she not died, most people would not have been this concerned. Her suicide coming so close to “Saving Face” optimism is infinitely disturbing and, yet, at some level, is slightly sobering. I now wait for patriotic anti-imperialist countrymen to tell us how she disgraced the nation and tarnished our honour by dying on Italian soil and she should have had the dignity and nationalism to at least die in Pakistan and do it discreetly, without unnecessary drama. And, perhaps, how all of this is an international conspiracy or maybe she just did it to attain cheap recognition. Fantastically ridiculous as all of this might sound, the surreal bit is that here you can never rule the possibility out. The words of General Pervez Musharraf of how Mukhtaran Mai should not have made an international fiasco of her gang rape to secure a visa and “dirty linen not being washed in public” remain imperishable.
One can be fairly certain about the fact that whoever threw acid on Fakhra’s face would have been disappointed to hear the news of her suicide. The intention in the first place was not to kill her; there are simpler means available to achieve that purpose. Hence, the parallel with honour killings might not be exact. The objective here was to make her suffer and –– I dare say –– make her hate herself. Her death would deprive the sadist from continuing pleasure and sense of empowerment. That is the only reasonable reason I can come up with for anyone throwing acid on a woman’s face. And for the time being, the theory that she herself threw acid on her face to get her five minutes of fame has not surfaced, yet, I can’t say I will be surprised if it does.
However, in the interest of fairness we are not completely apathetic to all of our women. There are decent betting odds that as I write this or you read this there are protests going on or being arranged for the nation’s daughter, Dr Aafia Siddiqui. I am all for the doctor’s right of appeal and the freedom of those who want to lobby for her release, etc. Yet at core level, it displays a classification of good and bad victims. Asia Bibi, Mukhtaran Mai and Fakhra are not really the victims that enrage us. Let me be cruel in presenting a hypothetical scenario: imagine if Mukhtaran Mai was allegedly gang raped by a group of Nato soldiers, or if the acid on Fakhra was thrown by a stationed Indian diplomat. That would have been drum-beating, blood-pounding stuff, with the possibility of a thermo-nuclear war being just around the corner. Alas, none of them was that lucky, and their tormentors were local goons, hence having no element of our collective national honour being under threat.
There has been some talk in rather self-congratulatory tones about the passing of legislation criminalising the throwing of acid on women. In an ordinary functioning society it would be at par with the obvious strenuousness of laws enacting prohibition on rape and murder, etc, and probably not require separate legislation since existing criminal laws would cover it. In Pakistan, the step is indeed a welcome one at a symbolic level, yet one should be careful of inflating expectations too much. The person who decides to throw acid on a woman is exactly the sort of person who does not care much about legal sanctions. Easy analysis would attribute this to a feudal mindset or perhaps certain pathology, and it may be partially true for this particular instance, yet the roots of misogyny go considerably deeper. I claim no particular expertise on the matter; however, some things require no real expertise. In a recent by-election there were isolated media reports of all parties in a constituency coming to a shameful agreement that women need not vote and hence, women polling stations remained locked up. Rudyard Kipling’s words in “The Female of the Species” are summoned to mind, “…So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer, With his fellow braves in council, dare not leave a place for her.” Almost as pathetic as the nauseous disenfranchisement was that it did not manage to spark any real curiosity from our free media.
Although Fakhra was from Karachi, the words of Amrita Pritam intended particularly for the daughters of Punjab, but also for all our daughters, are almost impossible not to quote and bear repetition. “Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nuun, kithun kabraan vichchun bol, te ajj kitab-e-ishq daa koyi agla varka phol, ik royi si dhi Punjab di, tuun likh likh maare vaen, Ajj lakhaan dhiyaan rondiya, tai Waris Shah nuun kahen, uth dardmandaan diya dardiya, uth takk apna Punjab, ajj bele lashaan vichhiyaan te lahu di bhari Chenab.”
(Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from inside your grave”
And turn, today, the book of love’s next affectionate page
Once, one daughter of Punjab cried; you wrote a wailing saga
Today, a million daughters cry to you, Waris Shah
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving, rise! Look at your Punjab
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.)
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2012.