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Pakistani Acid Burn Victims Are Starting Over in Beauty Salons

Brutal attacks go unpunished in an overloaded, corrupt legal system.

by Beenish Ahmed
05 August 2014, 5:00am

Victims of horrific acid burn attacks in Pakistan have found a champion in Musarrat Misbah, who owns a chain of high-end beauty salons. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted

Bushra Shafi brought clothes and sweets to her husband and mother-in-law after her brother was married, as is custom in parts of Pakistan—even though her in-laws had demanded a more substantial gift of 50,000 rupees, or about $500. When Shafi told him she wouldn’t be able to deliver the cash, her husband threw acid at her, badly maiming and nearly killing her.

Her story mirrors that of many acid burn survivors, 70 percent of whom are women. Most of the time, this form of gender-based violence is deployed during a marital dispute. Stories of women being burned for not bringing their in-laws a sufficient dowry, or suitors tossing acid on women who refuse their hand in marriage, abound. While a 2011 law strengthened the government's power to prosecute those who throw acid, Pakistani authorities are overloaded with cases and the easily bought legal system doesn't offer much of a deterrent. The Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan found 143 cases reported in 2013, an increase from 110 in 2012—though Valerie Khan Yousafzai of the Foundation cautions, “Whether this is due to awareness [of the law] or an increasing number of attacks, we do not know.”

She points out that many victims stay silent about the crimes for fear of further violence, especially since perpetrators are often close family members. And with severely caustic acid used in the textile industry cheaply and readily available across the country, it doesn’t seem like this grisly practice will abate any time soon.

Acid-throwing, which melts away the skin and often causes severe disfigurement and can damage vital organs, isn’t limited to Pakistan, either. The Acid Survivors Trust reports about 1,500 acid burn cases arise worldwide each year, though advocates believe the actual number to be much higher.

Shafi’s case was particularly brutal. “They tied me up, and put a cloth over my face and poured acid over it,” she tells me in Urdu, choking on her words. “There was nothing I could do. There was no one there who was on my side.”

Shafi with her husband before the attack, courtesy of Shafi

She was regularly chastised by her mother-in-law over money and suffered almost daily beatings from her husband, who was openly having an affair. The acid incident was severe enough to draw the neighbors in after her. Unconscious, she was carried to a nearby hospital. A doctor found her family, and they brought her blistered and blackened body back to the city of Lahore—leaving behind her three children.

It took Shafi six months to awake from a coma. Her eyes had been burned shut and her nose melted away; now her skin was tough and without feeling. So began the long and arduous process of addressing her wounds. Shafi collected donations, took out loans, and begged doctors for discounted care. But even as her face began to be reconstructed, Shafi’s internal sores still ached.

She wrapped herself in yards of fabric and covered as much of her face as possible before leaving the house for fear of the shrieks she heard from strangers who caught a glimpse of her. If her family had guests over, she locked herself in a room until they left, unable to deal with their questions or their pitying looks.

“Some people even said no one can be that cruel for no reason, so she must have done something to deserve it,” she says. Such thinking made her feel even more alone.

After nearly a decade of that isolated existence, Shafi’s niece brought her an ad she’d seen in the newspaper promising to help acid burn survivors. She called the number and was asked to come to a salon in one of the swankiest parts of the city. It was there that Shafi met Musarrat Misbah, the head of a prominent chain of high-end beauty salons and the founder of a non-profit that provides medical assistance and job opportunities to acid burn victims.

“When I got there and met her, she embraced me and treated me with so much love that it was as if she’d known me for years and years,” Shafi tells me. Her eyes well with tears just thinking about first encounter with Misbah, who she respectfully refers to by the title of baji, or sister.

Misbah wasted no time in beginning to schedule doctor’s appointments for Shafi and consulting experts on her best treatment options.

A lot has changed for Shafi in the ten years since that first encounter with Misbah—and not just because of the 150 or so operations she’s undergone.

A bulbous nose has been grafted onto her face. Her chin has been separated from her neck at the point where the two were smelted together. Hair was transplanted to the spots where her eyebrows used to be, and when they didn’t quite fill in as she had hoped, Misbah brought in a permanent make-up artist to draw in two rounded arches over Shafi’s eyes. Still, her skin is disjointed from so many grafts, and blackened in parts. Her eyes and ears don’t quite match up.

Even so, Shafi doesn’t wear a veil at all anymore. Not because she’s totally content with how she looks, but because she doesn’t think she has anything to hide. “I know that some people are still scared to look at me, and so I just wait for those who do talk to me and are willing to see me for who I am,” she says.

Shafi credits every part of her transformation to Misbah, who is somewhat of a celebrity across Pakistan, having founded Depilex, the salon chain. Well-connected with the country’s booming fashion and media industries, she lent her style sense to magazine shoots and morning shows for years. Her background might make her seem like an unlikely pick for this kind of dark and drastic recovery work, but the beauty maven’s dedication to acid burn survivors makes sense given her own history.

In 2003, Misbah was closing up one of her salons when a completely veiled woman walked in and demanded to be helped. “She was rude. She was impolite, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, [it's the] end of the day and here is a difficult client,’” Misbah recalls in lilting English from her office in Depilex’s Lahore headquarters.

Her exasperation turned to shock when the woman removed her veil. “I sat down because I thought there was no life left in my legs,” she says, “because right in front of me was a young girl who was without a face.”

“‘You claim to be a beautician and go on TV to give beauty tips, now do something for me,’” the acid burn survivor demanded. These words struck a chord with Misbah, who didn’t think it was enough to provide manis and pedis to the country’s elite anymore. She vowed to help the woman before her, and when she was unable to reach her again, pressed on anyway. “That was the beginning of [the] Depilex SmileAgain Foundation.”

Soon after this incident, Misbah put an ad in an area newspaper offering treatment to acid burn survivors, expecting a handful of responses. To her surprise, 42 women walked in. “I never realized how big this problem is or what a mammoth job I was taking on my shoulders,” she says.

Misbah couldn’t bear to turn any of them away and started to collect donations from friends and family, and to route a portion of her salons’ profits into the Foundation.

She has since registered the cases of more than 500 women and continues to chip away at each one of their needs. Misbah offers free medical and psychological care to the survivors, along with vocational training and job placement. Some of those she's helped have gone on to become nurses, seamstresses, bank tellers, and telephone operators, but to her surprise, the overwhelming majority have asked to be trained in cosmetology.

Misbah shelters many of the survivors in her own home before they are healthy and stable, which makes her feel like she's a bit of an Aunt Agatha figure. Until she can gather enough funds for a standalone shelter, she says, her doors will remain open. 

Soft spoken with elegant features and a sort of regal manner, Misbah sits at her large, glass-top desk sipping tea and eating a lemon square as she tells me about her life. It’s her first day back from a trip to the United States. Although Pakistan is marked by a rising tide of terrorist attacks and fundamentalist views, the corner of the country where her office is perched somehow seems immune from all that. Girls walk into her salon in skinny jeans and tank tops. There’s a Fro-Yo place down the street, and a Johnny Rockets just feet away, plus a generous selection of coffee shops (pastries are a weakness, Misbah admits). Although increasingly prevalent, such a scene bears stark contrast to the small tuck shops and rickshaw-loaded alleys that dominate most parts of urban Pakistan. Coiffed and cosmopolitan, Misbah seems to exist in a different world than the acid burn survivors she works with, but,says her own experiences played a big part in drawing her toward them.

Misbah’s early life seemed to be encased in gold. Her family had made it big in the pharmaceutical business, and she wanted for nothing. The eldest of nine children and a promising student, she was arranged to be wed at the age of 17. She was excited by the prospect of becoming a bride, and felt at ease about her own ambitions; her husband promised to let her study medicine and fulfill her dream of becoming of a doctor. But Misbah’s hopes—and sense of self—were torn apart when, soon after the birth of a son, her husband left after having an affair.

Back at her parents’ house, Misbah told her father that she wanted to earn her own living. He gently chided her, but, upon realizing she was serious, brought home Western magazines for her to look through in search of careers. After going through the ads in the back of a Vogue, Misbah picked a beauty school to attend in London. Her family supported her plans to enroll and took care of her son while she was away. Upon graduating, Misbah returned to Pakistan to a surprise: her family had set up a beauty salon for her to run. “It was more like a barber shop because it was decorated by my father,” she tells me, laughing. But in that small space lined with shaving chairs, she began her business and her quest for self-empowerment.

Not all Pakistanis are convinced of her unqualified dedication to the cause, however. In 2010, investigative reporter Umar Cheema wrote that government agencies investigated Misbah for alleged embezzlement of donor funds just after she was given one of Pakistan’s highest honors. One acid burn survivor claims that she didn’t see the funds accrued from overseas used for the survivors' benefit, although she admits that the organization paid for five of her operations and put her through its cosmetology course free of charge. For her part, Misbah categorically denies any allegations of corruption. “If I had to earn through bad means, then I’d have better opportunities working with beautiful girls and models in the beauty field than with the burn victims,” she tells me. “So whatever comes to me for their health and support, goes to [them].”

None of the survivors I met showed anything but complete admiration and trust in Misbah, and many of her supporters point to the overt changes they’ve seen in her. The hair and makeup artist—plus occasional actress—traded in jeans and blouses for more traditional Pakistani attire, and she now dons a headscarf at all times. She makes “the girls,” as she called the survivors she works with, the focus of her media appearances, and often appears onscreen with several of them beside her.

Misbah says that she’s accepted the fact that she might lose business because of her charitable work. For many, seeing acid burn survivors—and the immense cruelty and suffering in the world—doesn’t line up with their idea of a spa day. Brides, especially, find the presence of survivors to be unwelcome. They worry it might bode ill for their own marriages if burn victims help with their hair or make-up appointments, which can cost hundreds of dollars each.

"I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, but you have choices,'" Misbah tells me. “'You can go to any other salon. But these girls don’t have a choice, so they stay here.'”

Supporting acid burn survivors has changed Misbah’s concept of beauty, and as beauticians in her salons, they promote a more complex view of it among her clients, too.

“If we have a small pimple or a bit of a heat rash, we get so upset,” says a middle-aged woman who’s stopped in for a pedicure. “Looking at these [acid burn survivors] makes us realize how grateful we should be. ”

Yasmin Sohail has been a Depilex regular for the past 15 years, stopping in at least once a month.

“Is the water too hot?” Shafi asks her, preparing a foot bath for Sohail’s pedicure. “I’ve never said I don’t want my services done by someone who’s been burned,” Sohail says. In fact, she asked for Shafi specifically, saying that she puts her heart into her work—maybe because it affords her more than just an income. It gives her purpose after having lost so much.

I ask Shafi if she ever gets annoyed with clients who bemoan their split ends, overgrown cuticles, or smattering of slight blemishes given the damage wrought on her own appearance.

Never, she says. For her, suggesting a facial is not unlike her doctor telling her she’ll need a few more skin grafts.

Looking through fashion magazines can induce pangs of jealousy and self-doubt for just about anyone, but Shafi says she doesn’t have any hint of envy for the flawless faces she sees in them, or, for that matter, any of her clients or even the models she dolls up for shoots.

“I never entertained such feelings,” she says. “Even when people were afraid of me, I used to thank God for giving me my life and health and I know that I’d been spared, and allowed to live another day.”

Perhaps because Shafi has had to face so many big things, she simply doesn’t have it in her to worry about all the little ones.

“I don’t know what happened to my husband, because whenever someone so much as mentions his name, my blood boils,” she says. Her only concern now is for the children she left behind more than 15 years ago.

“People ask me if I ever think about my children, and I say that I never stopped thinking about them.”

They were young then, and Shafi can’t say how much they know about the events that necessitated her departure. She also has no clue as to the conditions they’re living in now. And there’s another issue: her mother-in-law’s brother, who used to live with her and her husband back when she was married, tried to coerce her into sleeping with him with the threat that he’d sell her kids off as bonded laborers if she didn’t. This much she’s never told anybody—not even Misbah.

Confronting this issue stirs a great deal of pain in Shafi, and when I go up to her workstation to say goodbye, she’s crying on Misbah’s shoulder. “Do you want to stay at my house tonight?” Misbah asks her. “No,” Shafi says. “I want to go back to my [actual] sister's house because then I can curl up with my nieces there. I can’t bear to sleep alone tonight.”

Before I go, Misbah tells me she’s already located Shafi’s children, but wants to prepare her for possible rejection before revealing where they’re living. They might not have it in them to see their mother as she is now, and Misbah doesn't want to subject her to any more heartache.

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