Although acid violence might seem a subject for criminologists and human rights scholars, today I write about it in a column on literature and film. South Asian writing has long dealt with honour killing, but acid attacks are a subset that has not yet been explored in criticism.
Rukhsana was 25 when she was portrayed in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s provocative Oscar winning documentary Saving Face. She had been doused in acid by her husband, her sister-in-law threw gasoline at her and her mother-in-law lit a match. Rukhsana’s husband claimed that she was mentally ill and wrought the damage on herself. Notwithstanding her abuse at the hands of this family, penury compelled Rukhsana to move back to their house. Even though she was a victim, Rukhsana’s scarring was considered disgraceful and she seldom went outside, even in a full face veil. Undeterred by her nerves about public speaking, she eventually found courage to exhort at a conference, “Someone must stop these brutal people, who turned us into the living dead.”
Acid survivors may be living, but after an attack they come to envy the dead. Suffering psychological as well as physical scars, they report feelings of fear and exhibit traumatic symptoms. They also endure victim-blaming and ostracism. Forced by their disfigurement into self- or socially-imposed purdah, they are likely to become dependants. Some are ashamed and view themselves as a drain on their innocent families. Others, as in Rukhsana’s case, must live with the abusers. Depression is widespread. It is common for survivors to commit suicide, escaping their torment. Rehabilitation is difficult, since survivors need expensive, risky and painful reconstructive operations.
The earliest fictional representation that I am aware of is Indian author Manohar Malgonkar’s 1964 novel A Bend in the Ganges. In this text about Gandhianism, Indian independence and Partition, the formerly peaceful character Basu joins the Hindu Mahasabha after a Muslim mob throws acid-filled bulbs at his wife. Basu exclaims, “Would you remain non-violent if someone threw acid at the girl you loved? — Would Gandhi?” Shortly afterwards, prostitute Mumtaz angers the sinister Shafi Usman by leaving him when Debi-dayal rescues the girl from her brothel. This enrages Shafi, who lobs acid at her, severely hurting Debi-dayal’s hand as he reaches to protect her.
Acid crime is not just a problem of the global south and nor, as Malgonkar’s dubious depiction suggests, is it a problem unique to Muslims. In Britain, the best-known acid violence survivor is Katie Piper. She was burned when industrial-strength sulphuric acid was hurled at her on the streets of London by a goon hired by her ex-boyfriend. Piper, who is now a vocal spokesperson on scars, burns and healing, writes in her memoir, “I was sure … I’d never be attractive to anyone again.”
Such violence has a long history wherever women are in an unequal position and acid is available. So: everywhere. It becomes more virulent in countries where access to acid is unregulated and the law is non-existent or ineffective. The motive tends to be revenge, frequently for turning down sexual advances or over a financial disagreement. Offenders are almost always known to the injured parties, often intimately.
Despite the fact that such attacks happen around the world, one can detect a saviour complex in certain Euro-American analyses of the violence as a phenomenon that happens ‘out there’ in the non-West. Would-be rescuers play down the important activism of local NGOs. In South Asia, organisations such as Depilex Smile Again in Pakistan, and Acid Survivors Foundation are doing great work tackling the crisis and helping survivors.
In Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Bangladeshi Hasina has a friend who nearly dies in an acid attack. As a household servant, Hasina needs permission from her employer Lovely to visit the victim. Hasina writes to her sister Nazneen in England: “Cheek and mouth is melt and ear have gone like dog chew off.” Lovely is initially disgusted to hear about these injuries. When the woman dies and Lovely learns that she had a son who was also maimed, she opportunistically makes her name as head of a new charity emotively titled Acid Innocents. Lovely’s saviour fixation is propelled by her hope that rescuing children will allow her to climb the ranks of Dhaka’s fashionistas and philanthropists.
Acid crime is not just a problem for women, as men are increasingly becoming victims. In 1990 almost all casualties in Bangladesh were women, but a decade later 22pc were men. In Britain too, Andreas Christopheros was left partially-sighted after opening his door to a man who threw acid on him in a case of mistaken identity.
Pakistani actor, film-maker and human rights activist Feryal Ali Gauhar takes a feminist approach to the War in Afghanistan in No Space for Further Burials (2007). Gauhar makes a searing critique of vitriolage when the schoolteacher Sabir Shah has acid flung in his face by the village mullah. Sabir is accused of blasphemy and communism, but this is cover for his real ‘offence’ of educating local girls. The acid “mak[es] the flesh around his jaw fuse with his neck” and from then on, his face “would frighten children and the faint-hearted even in daylight”.
Acid crime is not just a problem for poor people. Even the rich and seemingly powerful can be victims of burning and find themselves disbelieved and smeared. Piper comes from a middle-class family and has a glittering career, as do many victims.
These codicils notwithstanding, it would be wrong not to recognise the preponderance of women sufferers and the fact that more often than not this is gendered violence. Due to a range of factors including deprivation, lack of education, freely available acid and a toothless judicial system, it is more common in the global south, in rural areas and amongst poor, minoritised communities.
The protagonist of Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is an attractive Christian nurse in the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital in Karachi. Working there in the emergency room, “there was not a single day — not a single day — when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honour, father protecting his honour, son protecting his honour, jilted lover avenging his honour … [M]ost of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.”
At the novel’s end, Alice falls prey to this misogynist violence when her husband pours acid on her. He is told by an enabler that “[t]his is the only thing that’ll hurt as much as love hurts”, and thinks magnanimously, “I only want justice. … If I can’t have her, then nobody should be able to have her.” After the fatal onslaught, her father and some bystanders believe they see Alice triumphantly ascending to heaven dressed in Virgin Mary blue.
Given the range of victims and the complexity of the problem, sociologists Farhan Navid Yousaf and Bandana Purkayastha rightly said in an essay on acid survivors in Pakistan that an intersectional approach is needed to prevent future assaults and reintegrate victims. Activists should fight the horizontal and vertical workings of power, from class, caste and religion to race, age and gender.
In the future, let all be free from the fear of becoming the living dead.