By Juliette Terzieff
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Acid-attack victims and their families are seeking justice in Pakistan courts and speaking out against a form of violence that disfigures hundreds of women every year.
MULTAN, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Almost two years after relatives of a disgruntled suitor attacked his family with acid and killed two of his children, Daud Aziz Siddiqi is still in deep grief.
"I watched her melt away day by day . . . one day I woke up and her ear was gone," Siddiqi says of his hospital stay with 18-year-old daughter Rabia.
As he speaks, his wife Tahira sobs beside him. "If someone is shot with a bullet, most times there is surgery and then it is gone. With acid the pain just goes on and on and on."
The attack occurred early in the morning of July 23, 2002, as the Siddiqis, their daughter Rabia, and granddaughter, 4-year old Khola, slept in the courtyard of their Multan home. A father of a suitor the Siddiqis had declined as a mate for Rabia scaled the wall and splashed acid on the sleeping figures.
From within the house another family member heard their screams and ran out to witness the attacker, Zafar Siyal, fleeing.
When the Siddiqis reached the hospital, the skin had melted from Tahira's back and right arm. Rabia and Khola were more severely disfigured.
In an attempt to channel their agony the Siddiqis are pursuing the case in Pakistan courts and speaking out in the national media against a form of violence that disfigures hundreds of women every year in this South Asian nation.
They call it "tezab," sharp water in Urdu. Normally used for agricultural purposes, nitric and hydrochloric acid are easily obtainable and all too often turned into weapons for men against women and their families.
After confessing, Siyal was found guilty in December 2003 and assigned punishment under Pakistan's "Qisas" law which calls for a perpetrator to suffer the same fate as a victim. The case is now under appeals as Siyal attempts to avoid the judge's assigned punishment of having drops of acid placed in his eyes.
Hundreds of women every year fall victim to acid attacks usually at the hands of their husbands, jilted suitors or other family members. In 2002, 280 Pakistani women died and 750 were left disfigured by acid attacks according to a Human Rights Watch report issued last summer.
The majority of attacks occur in rural areas where tribal law dominates and violence is common way to settle disputes. In central and southern Punjab province, where Multan is located, cases of reported acid attacks have been steadily rising, from nine in 2001, to 56 in 2002, to 74 in 2003.
Sometimes the attacked women are seeking a divorce or the husband is seeking a second wife over the first's objections. Sometimes the triggering event can be as trivial as an argument over grocery money.
"Many cases go unreported as most women do not know their rights, or the culprits take the victim for medical treatment, claiming it was an accident, and threaten the victim or her children if she speaks out" says Wasim Muntizar, deputy coordinator for the Centre for Legal Aid and Settlement, a nongovernmental organization in Pakistan that helps defend and care for impoverished people.
"Lawyers usually have only the story told by the victim, rarely do any witnesses step forward . . . thus the conviction rate is well below 5 percent," Muntizar says. "Few cases ever even get to the courts."
Especially in smaller towns and villages, where female literacy is often only as low as 10 percent, the way of life can keep acid-attack victims out of public view. Once past puberty, young women are confined to their family's walled compound. Often they are forbidden from seeing male relatives outside their immediate family.
"It's not that people don't care," Muntizar told Women's eNews. "But rather that the majority of these cases are hidden away, quashed by the more powerful families."
It's a horror story Bushra Hali knows all too well.
A couple of years after getting married her husband and mother-in-law began repeatedly asking her to procure 50,000 rupees ($900) from her lower-middle class family to help pay the bills. Hali's family could not come up with the money, but her husband accused her of lying.
"I didn't understand what they were going to do, I never would have believed they could do such a thing," Hali recalls of the morning nine years ago when her mother-in-law bound her hands behind her back and began beating her. Then her husband wrapped a piece of cloth around the top of a stick and dipped it in liquid. After rubbing it in her face he handed it to his mother.
The last thing Hali remembers of that day is her mother-in-law bearing down upon her with the stick as her face began to burn. Hali was so severely mutilated that she was unable to speak for a year and half. During that time her in-laws sullied her reputation saying that she was having an illicit affair with a man. Even Hali's own relatives thought she'd done something terrible.
Desperate to avoid returning to her in-laws house, Hali dropped her attempts to prosecute her husband and mother-in-law in return for a divorce. In the process, she lost access to her three toddlers. She hasn't seen them since the morning of the attack.
"God only knows what lies my children have been told about their mother," she laments. "But I look like a monster. I scare kids on the street, how can I go back? How can I find out if they have some love left for their mother?"
Now, living with her aging mother, Hali, who has had 38 surgeries, spends most of her time indoors, wrapping her face tightly in a large scarf when she does leave the house.
"I die 10 times a day, and no one realizes it. I am utterly destroyed," she cries.
For the Siddiqis, who have spent countless hours learning about acid attacks and their aftermaths, securing a conviction against Siyal is the only way to procure some sort of justice for themselves and survivors such as Hali.
Their worst fear is that Siyal's lawyers will hold down the case so long in appeals, that eventually he is freed. They have organized demonstrations, spoken to politicians and advertised in national media to ensure that doesn't happen.
"If it was in my hands, every man guilty of this crime would be severely dealt with . . . at the least, life in prison, so that everyone knows that this crime will be punished under the law," says Daud Aziz.
"Our only hope," he says shakily, "is to keep screaming, keep fighting . . . and pray that all this suffering won't go unpunished."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.
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