Beauty treatment: Pakistan’s acid attack survivors can smile again
Life changed for Musarrat Mizbah one fall day in 2003 when a woman in a veil walked into her beauty parlour and asked “Can you make me beautiful?”
The woman lifted her veil and Musarrat, 59, collapsed.
“She had no face. One cheek, one eye was gone, teeth were visible,” said the beautician-turned-human rights activist. She was looking at a feminine version of a real-life Dracula.
That was the moment Musarrat said she saw the light. It was also her first encounter with an acid attack victim.
Musarrat called her doctor friends, who agreed to meet the woman the very next day.
Musarrat, who operates a chain of beauty parlours called Depilex, set up the Smileagain Foundation to treat and rehabilitate acid attack survivors and burn victims and also employ them as beauticians.
In the last decade she has helped and rehabilitated 700 survivors.
Initially, clients were reluctant and often requested to be served by other employees. However, she told them that the women were workers, not beggars. “Give them a chance, and if they are not good do not pay,” she would say.
Slowly and gradually society is accepting them, not merely as human beings but as great fighters for their rights and justice. At least 10 women fought through the courts and put their attackers behind bars. Naureen is one of them.
A mother of three girls, Naureen has undergone four surgeries. Currently working as a beautician in the upscale Defence Area of Lahore, she has plans to start her own beauty parlour. She lost an eye and the left side of her cheek when her former husband threw acid on her in broad daylight.
“It was 7am I was walking my three daughters to school, when suddenly my husband came from behind and threw the acid. The acid burnt half my face, neck, and arms. One of the daughters was also injured,” she recalled.
When she regained consciousness, she was in a hospital where Musarrat came to see her.
“In the beginning I had problems looking people in the eye. Now, I can face everything, everybody. My disfigurement is not my fault. I have become brave after coming here,” she said.
After her first encounter with an acid victim, Musarrat placed advertisements in newspapers asking acid attack and burn victims to see her for help and treatment. Within 15 days, 24 women of different ages from all walks of life entered her beauty parlour.
Depilex has entered into an arrangement with some of the best hospitals under which they treat acid attack and burn victims for US$5,000 per surgery. In almost all cases, victims need many operations.
Doctors from Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany and one from the United States offered their services for free. However, because of the security situation foreign doctors are now reluctant to come.
Musarrat feels happy and proud when one of these victims puts on lipstick, stands in front of the mirror and asks if she looks beautiful.
These victims are mostly poor and cannot fight their legal battles. Because of the law, doctors would not touch them until police came and registered a case. By that time, the acid has seeped into their body and the chance of survival diminishes.
Due to the slowness of the wheels of justice, witnesses often fail to appear in court or are won over by the other side. They turn against the victims and claim that the girls tried to commit suicide.
Musarrat views throwing acid on or burning a woman as worse than murder.
“You kill a person, he or she is gone. For a few days or months the family weeps but eventually it’s business as usual. But the girl who survives will cry her whole life. She will be reluctant to show her face to visitors and relatives,” she said.
Bushra nods in approval while serving tea. She herself is a burn victim.
“It was 20 years ago,” she recalls. She had two daughters and a son. But her in-laws were greedy. They were always demanding money and goods from her parents while they were alive. When they died, her in-laws decided she was good for nothing.
She was tied up and her hut set on fire. Some neighbours came to her rescue and took her to the hospital. When discharged, she started living with her sisters.
“Life was dismal and miserable. I spent most of the time lying alone, in darkness, in a corner,” she said. One fine morning in 2003, she found Musarrat through an advertisement for Smileagain.
Initially, she started working in the kitchen and was serving tea or drinks to customers. She underwent surgeries. In the meantime, she underwent training as a beautician.
“I am now living with my brothers. I earn a handsome amount of money. Even my brothers’ wives often want me to work on them when they go out. I am now an independent person,” she said, smiling.