Pakistani salon owner reveals extent of country's acid attack epidemic

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The Independent Online

Severe skin burns from kerosene or sulfuric acid can disfigure a person for life. This is what hundreds of Pakistani women have to live with each year, after being attacked for their “unfaithful” or “bad” behaviour, according to Masarrat Misbah, who runs a chain of beauty salons in Pakistan.

In 2003, she was accosted in the streets of Lahore by a young woman, veiled from head to toe, who begged her for help. Masarrat brought the woman back to her office and discovered a woman without a face under the veil. Her features were destroyed by the acid that her husband had thrown at her, leaving her disfigured and experiencing extreme feelings of shame.

Masarrat, revolted by the incident, decided to link her chain of beauty salons to the work of an Italian association, Depilex Smile Again Foundation, set up to care for disfigured women in Bangladesh.

Today the association cares for up to 600 female victims of sulphuric acid or kerosene attacks. Some children, splashed while close to their mothers at the time of the attack, are also treated for burns.

A team of Italian plastic surgeons work as volunteers for the association. They fly over and work for a week at a time.

Asked by surgeons what happened, one woman responds that she was burnt by hot oil while cooking.

Many of these women continue to live with their attackers, who are more often than not their own husbands. They do not have the choice: in many families divorce is not an alternative, especially if the woman has no financial income.

Masarrat encourages the women to become independent, and employs a dozen of them in her beauty salons. Thanks to her new job Urooj Akbar has been able to leave her former husband and attacker.

“I am no longer a victim, I am a woman,” says Urooj, who has had a dozen operations to repair the damage to her face. It takes an average of 25 operations to return these women's faces to as close to normal as possible.