Acid attacks on women in Pakistan
Pakistan has embraced the recent achievement of its first Academy Award for best documentary in the short subject category for the film Saving Face, by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The film depicts the struggle and endurance of the abused women – in the words of Obaid-Chinoy, the film is ‘a positive story about Pakistan on two accounts: firstly, it portrays how a Pakistani-British doctor comes to treat them and it also discusses, in great depth, the parliament’s decision to pass a bill on acid violence’. It is a rare opportunity for the country to celebrate, and yet there is a bittersweet reality to these revelries, as the surge of media interest surrounds the controversial topic of acid violence on women in Pakistan. Whilst the country ecstatically rejoices, one wonders if it truly comprehends the underlying nudge behind the triumph. It is important for Pakistan to understand that the ultimate accomplishment lies in resolving the issue at the heart of the documentary’s subject. It is reported by the Acid Survivors Foundation that there are estimated to be over 100 attacks each year, although the actual figures are probably much greater, due to a significant number of unreported incidents. Will the country be motivated to help these vulnerable women? Or will the award remain an ironic ‘achievement’ by a country which failed to recognise the implication that its first Oscar win materialised through the depiction of its failure to protect women from violence?
Women are being brutally attacked by men whom they know, men who feel their ‘honour’ has been compromised by their victims. Their intended purpose of using acid is to exercise control over these women, to disfigure their faces, so that they are forced to spend their lives battling with physical and psychological scars. The women have to live their lives facing prejudice from their communities, and in some cases are disowned by their own families for being imprinted with the scar of ‘shame’. Meanwhile, the perpetrators will most likely go unprosecuted through the corruption and lack of legislation in place in Pakistan. Some families will even accept that, lacking any significant help from the government, they would prefer to cash in on the tragedy, through out of court settlements. In an attempt to resolve the poor legislation surrounding acid violence, the Government of Pakistan recently passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill in 2011, which specifically criminalised acid attacks, and sentenced the offenders to a minimum sentence of 14 years, as well as a hefty fine. Whilst this bill is a step towards addressing the issue, it is questionable just how liberally the law will actually be implemented, as the root of Pakistan’s problems – corruption and inequalities – still exist.
Some reports in Western media have argued that the true underlying problem is actually Islam in itself, and its teachings on the treatment of women. For example, Gadi Adelman alleged that acid attacks are to do with Islam, and that ‘the ‘culture’ (of acid attacks) is 99.9% of the time Islamic.’ Such ignorant conclusions could not be further from the truth. First of all, we do not need to venture far from Pakistan to compare the statistics of acid violence in non-Muslim countries, as India had 111 incidents reported in 2011. India is a predominantly non-Muslim country, so do we now accuse other religions also as the cause of their problems? It would be absurd to do so as no religion teaches such cruelty. If anything, Islam teaches absolute respect for women. Let us take the example of the Holy Prophet(saw), who is the most perfect embodiment of the Holy Qur’an’s teachings. The Holy Prophet(saw) taught: “The best of you are those who treat their wives best.” These words exemplify the respect that Islam has not only for wives, but also for women in general. Thus, how can throwing acid in the face of a woman, to scar her and torment her for life, be in accordance with the teachings of Islam? If a single acid attack was made in the name of Islam, the perpetrator can be rest assured that their misconceptions of Islam’s teachings are completely contradictory to the truth.
Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), Khalifatul Masih V, the current head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has said regarding people who act wrongly in the name of Islam that:
“Let it be absolutely clear that these so-called Muslims are not working out of love for Islam, but are motivated only by their own selfish desires and vested interests.”
The men who carry out these brutal attacks against women are merely seeking revenge for something that has angered them, and are never acting in the name of Islam. Undeniably, acid attacks are greater in number in South Asian countries, where Islam is one of the most dominant religions. However, it needs to be remembered that the South Asian region includes developing countries that are inflicted with a weak rule of law and poor legislation. The awareness raised by Saving Face holds promise for the future of these vulnerable women. The issue of weak rule of law in Pakistan will take longer to overcome, but the documentary gives the subject the prominence that it deserves, and holds hope for a brighter future for these women. If the increased awareness on the subject can save the life of even a single woman, then the celebrations have to be worth it.
- Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, Wisdom of the Holy Prophet(as), Islam International Publications Limited, 1995, p. 11.