By Bina Shah
WHEN I was a student in Boston, I rode the subway almost every day. There was a woman who I saw more than once on the Red Line; her face was unforgettable, but not because she was a great beauty.
Her features were, in fact, grotesque: her nose deformed and melted, her eyes reduced to the size of dimes, her skin one great mass of flesh, tender and pink. She would stare at everyone who glanced in her direction, fury bright in her nearly-invisible eyes.
It took me many years to realise that she had been the victim of a fire, and her face had suffered second- or third-degree burns, turning her from an ordinary human being into a figure of shock, disgust and ridicule as she went about her daily business.
I was reminded recently of that woman’s face when I heard the news that the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2011, formerly known as the Acid Control and Acid Crime Bill 2010, was introduced in Pakistan’s National Assembly and passed without debate.
An 18-member committee on women development introduced the bill, which makes it a crime punishable by law to attack someone using acid, with the intention of wounding them or disfiguring them. It proposes a maximum sentence of life imprisonment – or a minimum 14 years’ imprisonment – plus a Rs1m fine on anyone found guilty of this crime.
Marvi Memon, an MNA from the PML-Q, is responsible for pushing the bill through in parliament. Initially sponsored by Memon and Fakhrunnisa Khokhar of the PPP, the acid bill was introduced in its current incarnation by Memon, Begum Shahnaz Sheikh of the same party and Anusha Rehman Khan of the PML-N. Other women MNAs across party lines praised the passage of the bill; Memon later stated on Twitter that it was “time to get all clean people from all parties together for good
policies for one purpose – to fix Pakistan. Don’t worry about which party we are in. The goal is Pakistan.”
Memon was inspired by the case of Maria Shah, the 22-year-old midwife from Shikarpur who died of an acid attack in 2009 when rickshaw driver Aslam Sanjrani threw acid on her as she worked at her clinic, because she spurned his marriage proposal.
Memon visited the woman as she lay dying in hospital, promising a law that would put Shah’s attacker in jail for life. Today, Memon feels she has delivered on that promise. She’s determined to hold the lawmakers responsible if they fail to catch the people who commit acid attacks.
“I’ve put the onus on the MNA of each constituency,” she stated on Twitter. “We will gun for them, not the criminals, if they fail us.” This is also a move that makes sense, given that many criminals in the rural areas appeal to a politically powerful feudal or sardar for protection once they’ve committed a crime like this.
But this is only the beginning, not the end, of the fight. First of all, now that the bill has been passed at this level, it goes to the Senate, where it needs to be adopted before it can become a law.
Furthermore, the bill doesn’t go far enough to truly protect women against acid attacks, either before they have occurred or after they have been committed. At least this is the opinion of Dr Shaista Effendi, a cosmetic and burn surgery specialist who works as a consultant at the Dr Ziauddin Hospital in Karachi. She’s had 30 years of experience working with the victims of acid attacks, as the founder and manager of the Civil Hospital Burns Unit, where women lie in agony, their flesh suppurating and stinking of gangrene, undergoing months and years of painful treatment to salvage what the acid didn’t burn away in the first place.
The bill, Dr Effendi says, doesn’t properly legislate to control the purchase of acid or any other corrosive substance, which is still easily available at any chemist or compounder’s store (it only recommends that provincial assemblies crack down on the buying and selling of acid). Also, it focuses explicitly on the criminal, not the victim, providing no compensation for the victim of an acid attack.
“She’s working, so are all the members of her family,” says Dr Effendi. “Once she’s in hospital, two or three family members must be with her all the time. It cripples an entire family, not just the person, psychologically, emotionally, financially. Not to mention how expensive the treatment is for a burn victim. The attacker must pay for that.”
But according to Dr Effendi, the real weakness of the bill is that it is a reactionary measure to what is a preventable crime.
“There are always signs leading up to the crime. Usually it’s a love-hate relationship between the attacker and the woman – she refuses his advances, rejects his proposal. There’s ego and possessiveness involved. And the attacker always shows signs of mental illness or disturbance leading up to the attack. These are the things that we have to watch out for.”
“To be honest, acid throwing is not unique to our country. There are rules that already cover this, under grievous bodily harm. But you see, we are a reactionary society. We need to show that we’re doing ‘something’, even when we could have done ‘something’ before the crime even happened.”
But this is Pakistan, and in Pakistan, something is better than nothing. Let’s hope this bill can evolve into the toughest piece of legislation we have yet on violence against women.
Let’s also learn the lesson that women legislators are far more willing to put aside party differences to push through laws in parliament that protect our girls and women against various forms of abuse – sexual harassment, honour killings, domestic violence and child marriage – a lesson that the women of Pakistan would do well to remember the next time we go to the polls to vote.