Raheela Raheem was 16 years old when she was attacked with acid by a man from her neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan. On the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, the biggest holiday in the Muslim calendar, she had just returned home after a shopping spree and a night of festivities with her family. As she stepped out of the car to open the gate to her house, she spotted Zeeshan Omar, a police officer from her neighborhood, standing by the gate—a bottle in his hand.
Two months before, Omar had asked for her hand in marriage, but her parents had turned him down on the grounds that she was too young and still in school. In a fit of rage, Omar swore that he would make them pay for this rejection. On the night of July 17, 2015, he came to fulfill that promise and do the unthinkable.
Omar aims the bottle at her… Splashes of acid hit her face and neck… Raheem’s screams echo as the acid pierces her skin… She instinctively reaches for her face, hands covered in Henna designs in preparation for Eid tomorrow. “If you cannot be mine, I won’t let you be anyone else’s either,” Omar shouts while she writhes in pain, the plastic bangles on her wrist melting into her skin. Amid the chaos, he flees.
Fortunately for Raheem, her family immediately rushed her to the hospital, which saved her life. Unfortunately for Raheem, the highly corrosive acid damaged her face, neck, and arms, causing severe facial disfigurement and the permanent loss of one eye. Over the next six years, she would undergo many cosmetic surgeries and attend dozens of court hearings in an effort to put Omar behind bars.
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Acid Attacks Prevalent in Pakistan
With about 200 acid attacks reported annually, Pakistan has a reputation for being one of the deadliest countries for acid attacks. Most of the victims are women.
“Some of the reasons women have been subjected to acid attacks include rejecting marriage proposals, giving birth to daughters instead of sons, and not bringing enough dowry to their in-laws’ houses,” said Masarrat Misbah, a Pakistani philanthropist and entrepreneur. She is the founder of the Smile Again Foundation, a national organization that provides medical care and covers educational and vocational training courses for acid attack survivors.
Noreen Jabbar, 37, is one of more than 750 acid attack survivors registered with the Smile Again Foundation. She lives in Lahore with her three daughters and operates a beauty salon from her family home. Ten years ago, Jabbar was attacked with acid by her ex-husband. “It had been three months since the divorce,” she said. “We had no communication since my family had stopped him from coming over."
“It was seven in the morning when I was dropping my daughters at school. He came from behind, and when I turned my head around, I saw him with a bottle in his hand,” Jabbar recalled. “I thought it could be acid since he had already threatened me with it. But before I could do anything, he immediately threw it at my face. The entire side got burned. Some of it also got into my eye.”
Leading up to the divorce, Jabbar’s husband had exhibited violent tendencies toward her and her daughters. “I was the single breadwinner at home and made a living by sewing clothes. We started having fights because we could not make ends meet,” Jabbar said. As their financial situation worsened, he became increasingly aggressive, blaming her for giving birth to daughters and blaming them for bringing ill fortune to their house.
“Then one day, he called my brother and told him he was divorcing me,” said Jabbar, who then moved into her parents’ house with her daughters. However, her ex-husband started harassing her and demanding that she return to him. “My brother told him that, now that the divorce had happened, I would not go back to his house,” Jabbar said. In turn, he threatened to disfigure her face with acid so that no other man would be willing to marry her.
Following the attack, Jabbar, like Raheem, permanently lost one of her eyes. She was rushed to the hospital after bystanders came to her aid in response to her daughters' screams. “My eldest daughter put her hand on my face to see what happened and burned her own hand in the process,” Jabbar said.
At the hospital, Jabbar waited for medical attention for five hours until reporters arrived on the scene. “I was shaking like a fish out of water because of the pain,” Jabbar said. “Then there was some ruckus that the media had arrived.” Doctors then gave her an injection to ease the pain, and she was kept in the hospital for 15 days before she was released.
The long road to recovery
“When I met Noreen, she was in very bad shape,” Misbah said of Jabbar. “She had actually lost half of her face. There was skin which had to be pulled, but there was nothing that could be done for her eye. Not even a prosthetic eye would help her." Misbah took Jabbar under her tutelage, trained her in beautician skills, and employed her at one of the beauty salons she owned in Lahore.
A veteran of Pakistan’s beauty industry, Misbah launched the first Depilex salon in 1980. Today, it is a conglomerate that runs a chain of salons across the country and employs many acid attack survivors affiliated with the Smile Again Foundation. Jabbar worked at the Depilex salon in Lahore for many years before deciding she wanted to be home with her daughters. Today, she runs her own small salon from her house while also tailoring clothes as a secondary source of income. Jabbar also helps out at the local Depilex salons from time to time. “Whenever I need her to come in, she comes to help and is our assistant makeup artist also,” said Misbah.
“With one eye, it was difficult to adjust at first,” Jabbar said. “Sometimes I would run into walls because I couldn’t see from one side. Sewing was particularly difficult. But I’ve gotten used to it now, and I love my work.”
Over the years, Jabbar has undergone many cosmetic surgeries. Reconstructive procedures for burns suffered in acid attacks can be quite complicated. “In acid attack crimes, the assailants usually target the most exposed and the most aesthetically sensitive part of the patient’s face and the upper part of the neck and chest,” said Dr. Muazzam Tarrar, a Lahore-based plastic surgeon and the founder of Jinnah Burn and Reconstructive Surgery Center. With 35 years of experience in acute burn management and reconstructive surgery, he has performed surgeries on many acid-attack survivors, including Jabbar.
In reconstructing burned areas, the aim is that they eventually return to an approximate normal state, Tarrar said. “But you have to go through prolonged procedures. You have to stage them. You have to give time in between. Even after we perform surgery, they require a lot of aftercare, physiotherapy, scar management, and help from other ancillary specialists like camouflage makeup artists and prosthetists” who provide prosthetics for noses, eyes, and ears, he added.
The treatment is very expensive. While Jabbar’s procedures were covered by the Smile Again Foundation, other acid attack victims have not been so fortunate. For instance, Raheem’s family who had to move her from Karachi to Islamabad out of fear for her safety following the attack, ended up selling their home to pay her medical bills in Islamabad.
“This incident took a toll on my entire family,” Raheem said of losing their home. “While I was in Islamabad with my mother undergoing medical treatment, my father had become very depressed in Karachi. So, he sold our family home and our business at a very low cost and moved to Islamabad to be with us.”
After years of treatment, which were interrupted during the pandemic, Raheem said she finally looks somewhat similar to her old self. “The doctors took patches of skin from my thighs and arms to add to my forehead to regenerate my face.” However, nothing could be done about her eye. “My mother begged the doctor to take her eye and add it to my face. She said, ‘Take my entire face and put it on my daughter. Just make her look like what she used to be.’”
The road to justice and hopes for eradication
Although acid attacks have been prevalent in Pakistan for decades, it was only in 2011 that the National Assembly passed the first Acid and Burn Crime Bill, which criminalized acid attacks and made them punishable by 14 years to life imprisonment and a fine of PKRs. 1 million.
Jabbar, whose ex-husband is serving a 14-year prison sentence, worries about his eventual release. “He’ll be out in another seven years,” she said. “We are very scared because we don’t know what he’ll do when he comes out. My daughters and I wish he was in prison for life so we would not have to worry about him getting out.”
Jabbar added that he has made several attempts to ask her and his daughters for forgiveness in order to be released sooner. “My daughters tell him that we have forgiven you, but we will not bail you out. You were not thinking about us when you attacked our mother despite knowing she’s our only support system,” Jabbar said.
In 2012, the National Assembly passed further landmark legislation when it moved trials for acid attack crimes to the anti-terrorism courts, known for adjudicating longer sentences. Still, acid attack violence persisted in Pakistan.
“I think the main issue was that acid was readily available. There was no prohibition on the sale of acid,” said Justice Nasira Iqbal, one of the first female high-court judges in Pakistan and an expert on law pertaining to gender-based violence. Acid is widely used in the textile industry for farming cotton, which contributes 10% to the country’s GDP, and sales have been difficult to monitor. Highly concentrated acid was also sold to the general public without any regulation due to its multi-purpose use. “It’s used as a cleaning agent for many things such as toilets and large swimming pools,” Iqbal said. “It’s also used in schools and laboratories for science experiments.”
Recognizing that acid can also be used as a dangerous weapon, the National Assembly passed the Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2014, which regulates and limits the sale of acid. This resulted in a 54.9% decrease in the occurrence of acid attacks in 2015, as reported by the Acid Survivors Foundation, a national organization that tracks acid attack violence and is committed to eradicating it in Pakistan. In 2016, the foundation reported a further 51.91% decrease in acid attacks.
However, while the frequency of acid attacks has decreased, so have conviction rates.
Raheem, who was attacked in 2015, fought a legal battle for six years against her assailant. “Fighting for justice was like chewing on steel for me,” she said. Recalling the night that Omar attacked her, Raheem said she was in a coma by the time she was taken to the hospital and was kept on a ventilator for the next three days. “He was planning to escape to Dubai, but the police were very quick to act because he had followed me to the hospital and tried to enter my room dressed as a hospital staff worker. He wanted to kill me before I could wake up and give a statement against him to the police, but my family recognized him, and he was caught.”
For the next six years, her case lingered as it was moved between session courts and the anti-terrorism court. “My case should have been tried at the ATC, but he (Omar) used his influence as a police officer and political connections to downgrade our case to a sessions court, where he could easily threaten the judge,” Raheem added.
Meanwhile, there continues to be significant but slow progress on laws pertaining to acid attack crimes. In 2018, the National Assembly passed another Acid and Burn Crime Bill, which provides free medical treatment and rehabilitation for acid attack survivors – a landmark law that could have prevented Raheem’s family from losing their home had it been enacted sooner.
Even so, she has prevailed over her attacker. In 2022, Omar was sentenced to life in prison.
“While fighting my legal battle, I wasn’t thinking about myself but of future Raheelas,” Raheem said. “I wanted to make sure nobody has to experience what I underwent.”