Pakistan horrified by feudal husband's acid attack on beauty

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The Independent Online

When Fakhra Yunus could stand the abuse of her upper-class husband no more, she ran back to her mother's home in the red light district of Karachi. Her mother was alarmed to see her. "You can't leave a man like that without consequences," she told her. Together they went to the local police station to ask for protection.

Next morning, while Fakhra was lying in bed with her four-year-old son, her husband burst into the room with two armed men.

She lay still, pretending to be asleep. He sat at the foot of the bed, shook her foot and called her name. "What do you want?" she replied, sitting up. He grasped her hair, holding her head rigid, and emptied a bottle of liquid of some sort over her head and torso. Fakhra looked down and saw her clothes melting into her skin and tried to scream – but her lips were stuck together.

The concentrated acid that Bilal Khar sluiced over Fakhra Yunus fused her lips, burned off her hair, melted her breasts and one ear, closed one eye and gave what remained of the skin of her face and upper body the look of melted rubber. Before the attack she was a voluptuous 21-year-old beauty with full lips, large eyes, a rich mane of jet hair. In a moment of vengeful fury, her husband turned her into a monster. "People are scared to look at her, children run away screaming," says the woman who has become her protector. "Can she be part of this world? Who will keep her? Who will desire her?"

Mutilation by acid is perhaps the most horrific of the many ways in which men in South Asia abuse, wound and murder wives and female kinfolk for reasons of "honour". For a woman, an acid attack is quite literally a fate worse than death – but often inflicted on flimsy pretexts: rejection of a marriage proposal, a dinner that arrives late.

It is Pakistan's hidden shame. No one knows how many such attacks occur, but in Bangladesh where statistics are now collected, there are hundreds of attacks every year and the number is rising fast. Few cases in Pakistan are brought to justice, and when they are the maximum penalty is a mere six months' jail. The public appears unmoved. "Acid is thrown by poor people at poor people," says an activist in Lahore. "The typical reaction of women is, she must have done something bad to make him so angry..."

But the case of Fakhra Yunus has made big headlines and Pakistan's conscience has been pricked. Because, far from being poor, Fakhra's attacker was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful feudal families in Pakistan. Thanks to the efforts of Tehmina Durrani, author of My Feudal Lord, a bestseller all over the world, Fakhra's disfigured face has been splashed across the newspapers. Now Pakistan knows exactly what an acid attack entails.

Fakhra Yunus was born in Karachi's red light district, and became a nautch, or dancing girl, while a child. On reaching puberty she became a prostitute, but when a feudal heir from one of the most powerful families in the Punjab took an interest in her, fate suddenly seemed to smile. In 1998, despite the social chasm separating them, and in defiance of his family, Bilal Khar married her.

Fakhra's bliss did not last. Bilal was the son of Mustapha Khar, the wealthy landlord to whom Tehmina Durrani had been married and whose medieval brutality she had chronicled in her book. Bilal got into the habit of beating Fakhra, just as his father had beaten Durrani. Finally, she ran away.

To the feudal mindset, Bilal Khar's chattel had outraged his family's honour. "People said to him, look, she's left the clean place and gone back to the evil place," Tehmina Durrani explains. Khar's honour demanded satisfaction.

The acid attack was only the start of Fakhra's horror. After hospital in Karachi – two other acid victims died in the same ward while she was there – Khar persuaded her to come back to him. "For six months he sexually abused her," says Durrani.

Finally, Durrani got word of what was happening and took Fakhra under her wing in Lahore. Now, Fakhra is in Italy, beginning a three-year programme to rebuild her appearance. Durrani and her supporters are campaigning to make acid mutilation a crime punishable by 14 years' imprisonment. But Bilal Khar, who threatened to blow away Durrani's kneecaps, is still at large; with his precious honour in tatters.