I stand still in a congested room. The camera is mounted on the tripod, my eyes glued to the screen, and ears alert to ambient sounds of Lahore’s bustling streets. The humidity of July engulfs the air in the dingy house I find myself in as my colleague, Laiba Mubashar, asks our interviewee, Noreen, deeply personal questions. Two little girls are quietly listening in from the adjacent room, hearing their mother relive her trauma. The pot on the stove whistles as the candescent brew leaves smoke to billow from the window. Noreen seems unsure about her description of the attack as I pause the recording to take it all in.
Acid attacks are a form of gender-based violence involving an acid or a different corrosive thrown at victims with the intent to injure, torture, or kill. Females are particularly targeted, and the perpetrators are usually their husbands and other male figures in the house. Countries including the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Colombia have dealt with these attacks in the last decade. Some of the reasons behind these crimes are suspicions of infidelity, land disputes, allegations of dishonor, rejection of marriage proposals, and internal family conflict.
The World Economic Forum placed Pakistan as 153 out of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index for 2021. Gender-based crimes are part of a bigger conversation on women’s rights in the country. There is a long way to go for sufficient judicial, medical, and legislative reforms and in particular for survivors who face numerous challenges on a daily basis. COVID-19 had a significant impact on the livelihoods and treatment of victims of acid-based crimes. Having been subjected to the worst form of mental and physical turmoil, my sources seemed unfazed sitting in front of a camera sharing their life stories.
Interviewing acid attack survivors has taught me more about journalism than any textbook or lecture. There is a concept I learned called “accelerated intimacy” and its importance in building trust with sources. With the women we met in our reporting journey, building trust was the most difficult part.
Personally, I had to desensitize myself to the topic to make sure emotions did not cloud my judgment during production. However, when I listened to the interviews during the editing process, I realized we had heard some harrowing first-hand accounts from victims of gross injustice while maintaining safe distance from their stories in order to capture them in their purest form. This had to be done with great care and diligence. As the only male figure in the team, I was aware that it would be much more difficult for these victims of gender-based violence to open up to me. Hence, Laiba and I divided responsibilities accordingly and both of us assumed roles that had contrasting requirements.
In our journey to cover the topic holistically, there was an honest attempt made to reach out to sources from the medical, judicial, legislative, and religious fields. The Smile Again Foundation—an NGO for acid attack survivors—was a great help in the process and deserves a mention in this note to commend the inspiring work they are doing for the empowerment of survivors.
I met with women who had their homes broken, faces disfigured, and futures mercilessly snatched from them, yet they face life after near-death with an unbreakable will to survive. Often these victims had to put themselves in uncomfortable situations in order to put food on the table for their families. I can still recall my surprise as one woman shared how she drove a rickshaw to earn a living, a rare sight to see considering how male-dominated the field was.
Traveling to the capital city of Islamabad, I got the chance to meet with a prominent Muslim cleric and I became exposed to another dimension of a complex discussion on the rights of women in Islam and the state of women in the country at large. The diversity of sources demanded an open mind to hear them out as there was an array of stories and angles that had to be uncovered. It soon became very clear that our project could take many different routes, but the one we stood firm in was highlighting the empowerment journey of acid attack survivors.
According to Acid Survivors Trust International, a nonprofit charity organization, Pakistan has seen a 50% decline in acid attacks since 2014. The rates of acid attacks in the country have steadily gone down, but their effects linger on through the everyday struggles of survivors. One woman had lost her eye yet sewed, while another had burned her leg yet drove. I met women who were taking care of their families, earning an honest living, managing their wounds, prioritizing their mental health, praying five times a day, and helping out in their own small communities. At a time when the whole world had a collective concern for COVID-19 and people were forced into isolation, victims of gender-based violence suffered silently. Their struggles during and after the pandemic are another focus of our project considering that a vast majority of these survivors worked in client-facing institutions specifically catering to women, such as parlors.
In my experience, justice is subjective, but in the cases of acid attack survivors, it is often objectively cruel. One woman had her perpetrator released from jail in seven years’ time while another's attacker had never been convicted. The range of traumas and the emotional baggage that came with this project was at times overwhelming. I understood that in order to stay true to the stories of resilience I wished to tell, I had to take a page from the book of these victims and steel my resolve further. Many women did not feel comfortable to be on camera or speak to us behind it for a number of valid reasons. The ones who did, however, wanted to spread the message of solidarity, strength, and patience—qualities these survivors had in spades.
An unshakable faith in God, a duty to family, and a heart full of forgiveness is what I found in my sources. The interviews I took supplemented my belief that where there is evil in society, there are also good people who genuinely wish to make a difference in the lives of others.