By Nahal Toosi
Associated Press Writer / August 18, 2008
LAHORE, Pakistan – Saira Liaqat squints through her one good eye as she brushes a woman’s hair. Her face, most of which the acid melted years ago, occasionally lights up with a smile. Her hands, largely undamaged, deftly handle the dark brown locks.
A few steps away in this popular beauty salon, Urooj Akbar diligently trims, cleans and paints clients’ fingernails. Her face, severely scarred from the blaze that burned some 70 percent of her body, is somber. It’s hard to tell if she’s sad or if it’s just the way she now looks.
Liaqat and Akbar are among Pakistan’s many female victims of arson and acid attacks. Such tales tend to involve a spurned or crazy lover and end in a life of despair and seclusion for the woman.
The two instead became beauticians.
The women can’t escape the mirrors or pictures of glamorous models that surround them, but they consider the salon a second home and a good way to make a living. The two also serve as reminders of that age-old lesson on beauty — a lesson that, needed or not, they learned the hard way.
“Every person wishes that he or she is beautiful,” says Liaqat, 21. “But in my view, your face is not everything. Real beauty lies inside a person, not outside.”
“They do it because the world demands it,” Akbar, 28, says of clients. “For them, it’s a necessity. For me, it isn’t.”
Liaqat and Akbar got into the beauty business in the eastern city of Lahore thanks to the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, an organization devoted to aiding women who have been burned in acid or other attacks.
About five years ago, Masarrat Misbah, head of Pakistan’s well-known Depilex salon chain, was leaving work when a veiled woman approached and asked for her help. She was insistent, and soon, a flustered Misbah saw why.
When she removed her veil, Misbah felt faint. “I saw a girl who had no face.”
The woman said her husband had thrown acid on her. Misbah decided to place a small newspaper ad to see if others needed similar assistance. Forty-two women and girls responded.
Misbah got in touch with Smileagain, an Italian nonprofit that has provided medical services to burn victims in other countries. She sought the help of Pakistani doctors. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been raising money for the cause, in particular to build a special hospital and refuge for burn victims in Pakistan. Her organization has some 240 registered victims on its help list, 83 of whom are at various stages of treatment.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that in 2007, at least 33 women were burned in acid attacks, and 45 were set on fire. But the statistics are likely an undercount, as many cases go unreported for various reasons including out of fear of their attackers, or because the victims can’t afford the legal bills.
The victims Misbah has helped need, on average, 25 to 30 surgical procedures over several years, but she soon realized that wasn’t enough. Some, especially those who were outcasts in their families, had to be able to support themselves.
To her surprise, several told her they wanted to be beauticians.
“And I felt so sad,” Misbah says. “Because beauty is all about faces and beautiful girls and skin.”
She helped arrange for 10 women to train in a beauty course in Italy last year. Some have difficulty because their vision is weak or their hands too burned for intricate work. But several, including Liaqat and Akbar, are making their way in the field.
The salon in Lahore is not the usual beauty parlor. There are pictures of beautiful women on the walls — all made up, with perfect, gleaming hair. But then there’s a giant poster of a girl with half her face destroyed.
“HELP US bring back a smile to the face of these survivors,” it says.
Working for the salon is a dream come true for Liaqat, whose mischievous smile is still intact and frequently on display. As a child she was obsessed with beauty. Once she burned some of her sister’s hair off with a makeshift curling iron. She still wears lipstick.
Akbar, the more reserved one, also carries out many administrative and other tasks for the foundation. One of her duties is collecting newspaper clippings about acid and burn attacks on women.
Both say they are treated well by clients and colleagues, but Misbah says some clients have complained.
“They say that when we come to a beauty salon, we come with the expectation that we’re going to be relaxed, in a different frame of mind,” Misbah says. “If we come here and we see someone who has gone through so much pain and misery, so automatically that gives us that low feeling also. They have a point.
“At the same time, there are clients who take pride in asking these girls to give them a blow-dry, or getting a manicure or pedicure taken from them.”
Sometimes they ask what happened.
According to Liaqat and a lawyer for her case, she was married in her teens, on paper, to a relative, but the families had agreed she wouldn’t live with him until she finished school. Within months, though, the man started demanding she join him.
One day at the end of July 2003, he showed up at their house with a package. He asked her to get him some water. He followed her to the kitchen, and as she turned around with the water, she says, he doused her with the acid. It seared much of her face, blinded her right eye, and seriously weakened her left one.
Liaqat shakes her head when recalling how a few days before the incident she found a small pimple on her face and threw a fit. After she was burned, her parents at first wouldn’t let their daughter look at a mirror. But eventually she saw herself, and she’s proud to say she didn’t cry.
“Once we had a wedding in the family. I went there and all the girls were getting dressed and putting on makeup. So that time, I felt a pain in my heart,” she says. “But I don’t want to weaken myself with these thoughts.”
Her husband is in prison as the attempted murder case against him proceeds. The two are still legally married.
Akbar says she found herself in an arranged marriage by age 22. Her husband grew increasingly possessive and abusive, she says. The two had a child.
About three years ago, Akbar says, he sprinkled kerosene oil on her as she slept and lit it. A picture taken shortly afterward shows how her face melted onto her shoulders, leaving her with no visible neck.
Akbar has not filed a case against her now ex-husband. She says she’ll one day turn to the law, at least to get her daughter back.
Both women were reluctant for The Associated Press to contact their alleged attackers.
Liaqat and Akbar have undergone several surgeries and expect to face more. They say Misbah’s foundation was critical to their present well-being.
“Mentally, I am at peace with myself,” Akbar says. “The peace of mind I have now, I never had before. I suffered much more mental anguish in my married life.”
Bushra Tareen, a regular client of Liaqat’s, praises her work.
“I feel that her hands call me again and again,” Tareen says. She adds that Liaqat and Akbar remind her of the injustices women face, and their ability to rise above them.
“When I see them, I want to be like them — strong girls,” she says.
Liaqat is grateful for having achieved her goal of being a beautician. She worries about her eyesight but is determined to succeed.
“I want to make a name for myself in this profession,” she says.
Akbar plans to use her income one day to support her little girl, whom she has barely seen since the attack. “I’m independent now, I stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I have a job, I work, I earn. In fact, I’m living on my own … which isn’t an easy thing to do for a woman in Pakistan, for a lone woman to survive.
Associated Press Writer Manal Ahmad contributed to this report