— The cherub-faced 10-year-old girl was standing at a bus stop, saying goodbye to visiting relatives, when her mother noticed two motorcycles approaching, one coming down the street and the other from a graveyard behind them.She recognized someone on one of the motorcycles: her older daughter’s former fiance. He was clutching two liter-sized metal jugs.As two men armed with a pistol on the second motorcycle kept the cluster of relatives from running away, the ex-fiance handed one of the jugs to a fourth man riding with him. Without saying anything, they flung the contents at Parveen Akhtar and her little girl, Zaib Aslam.
The jugs contained sulfuric acid bought at a local market for 88 cents.
“It felt like someone had flung fire on me,” Akhtar said. “When I turned to look at Zaib, her face didn’t look like a face.”
In that terrible instant, much of Zaib’s face was seared away and her eyelids sealed shut. The acid splashed into her mouth, severely scarring her throat.
Six months later, Zaib always keeps a pink shawl draped over her head. She doesn’t want anyone — not even her family — to see her face.
She can’t see. Her throat remains badly swollen, so she eats only soup or bread dipped in milk or tea to soften it. There are days when she tells her family she no longer wants to live. And there are days when she sobs and begs for someone to turn back time.
“She’ll tell us, ‘I want my old face back!’ ” said Akhtar, whose right arm, neck and torso were burned in the attack. ” ‘All of you have normal faces! Why can’t I look like you?’ “
When Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar this year for “Saving Face,” her documentary on victims of acid attacks, Pakistan’s struggle to eradicate the crime drew worldwide attention, and horror.
A law enacted in December has established tougher penalties for acid attack convictions: from 14 years in jail to lifetime imprisonment, and a fine of up to $11,000 — a large sum for most Pakistanis. And yet every week, victims show up in emergency rooms nationwide, their faces and bodies horribly scarred.
No database exists that catalogs acid attacks in Pakistan, but the Acid Survivors Foundation, a Pakistani advocacy group for victims, estimates that 150 occur each year. The majority of the victims are women, and attacks are often an escalation of domestic violence.
“And at some point, the level of violence rises to a point where the husband wants to punish the wife by throwing acid at her to teach her a lesson and disfigure her for life,” said Valerie Khan, the group’s chairwoman.
Awareness about the crime has improved, Khan said, but Pakistan remains a patriarchal society where, particularly in rural areas, women’s rights are routinely ignored. Many attacks go unreported, and even when victims lodge complaints, police and judges often halfheartedly pursue the cases.
“The main trend in the Pakistani justice system remains that too few perpetrators are being convicted,” Khan said. “With local police and judges, the level of sensitivity and attention that they give to this issue is clearly insufficient.”
Here in Punjab province, women are often treated like chattel. Cases persist of teenage girls forced to marry men in rival families to settle blood feuds. Women who marry against their families’ wishes often become victims of honor killings. In a part of the country where local economies are driven by sprawling textile factories and sugar mills, women rarely own property or run their own businesses.
Victimization of women is especially prevalent within the underclass here, where education is lacking and large, extended families scrape by on a few hundred dollars a month. Zaib’s father is retired, and the eight children who still live at home rely on about $200 a month earned by Zaib’s 12- and 15-year-old brothers, who work as mini-bus attendants, and an 18-year-old brother who works at a bakery.
In the legislation passed in December, a loophole that once allowed acid attack defendants to avoid jail by reaching out-of-court settlements with victims was closed. That doesn’t give Zaib any solace, however. The attack that ended her life as she knew it occurred Nov. 25, just 17 days before it passed. A settlement reached in March between Zaib’s family and Ghulam Dastagir, the man who engineered the attack, is not affected by the new law.
The price that settlement put on Zaib’s face and misery was 350,000 rupees, about $3,800. Akhtar received 500,000 rupees, roughly $5,500. Leaning against a doorway at their two-room house in a cramped Faisalabad neighborhood, Akhtar glanced over at Zaib sitting motionless on a bed and acknowledged that settling was a mistake.
“I’m not happy with this agreement,” Akhtar said. “He’s free, and he could come and attack me again, or he could attack someone else in my family. That fear gnaws at me.”
Last summer, Dastagir, a 38-year-old supervisor at a Faisalabad textile plant, announced plans to marry Zaib’s 20-year-old sister, Nazia. On the day of the wedding, Dastagir didn’t show up. He had never told Nazia or her family that he was already married and had two daughters. His uncle had finally convinced Dastagir that he couldn’t go through with the wedding.
Two months later, Nazia married another man, a 25-year-old computer technician at a Faisalabad textile plant. When Dastagir found out, he was furious, Akhtar said. Dastagir focused his anger on Akhtar, who he believed had allowed Nazia to marry someone else.
“One day, he saw Nazia and me at a bus stop and threatened us,” Akhtar said. “He told me: ‘This marriage is wrong and I will not leave this alone. I will deal with you.’ “
On Nov. 25, Dastagir acted on his threat.
After throwing the acid, Dastagir and the other three men sped away. At the hospital, doctors sized up the damage to Zaib’s face and throat. Her face had been nearly flattened by the acid. Her nose was destroyed and her lips had ballooned.
Doctors saved her life, but lacked the means to do anything more than a single skin graft from her thigh that gave her face a bit more depth.
Police later arrested Dastagir and two of the accomplices. Dastagir, however, had connections with clout-wielding locals, including a Punjab provincial lawmaker, said Akhtar’s brother-in-law, Abdul Aleem. The lawmaker’s son-in-law began showing up at Akhtar’s house, urging her and her husband to accept money instead of a jail term for Dastagir and the other men, he said.
“There was no direct pressure, but we felt we were being threatened,” said Aleem, who became the family’s negotiator. “He’d say: ‘If you agree, in the future we will take care of you if you’re in trouble. But if you don’t listen to us, we won’t be on your side if you face trouble.’ “
On the day a judge approved the settlement, Dastagir and the other men walked free. Though the money is far more than either Aleem or Aslam, Zaib’s father, makes in a year, it doesn’t come close to paying for the raft of surgeries that doctors say Zaib will need to have any hope of improving her face and eyesight.
In the meantime, Zaib is the one who feels imprisoned. On the few occasions she has gone outside, neighborhood children have shunned her. “They stare at her face and say, ‘No, we don’t want to play with you,’ ” Akhtar said. She has missed five months of school since the attack. At home, she spends most of her time sitting alone on her bed, playing with dolls.
“She cries so much,” Aleem said. “There are times when she has said: ‘I want to die. It’d be better to die than to live this life.’ “