Will Pakistani acid/burn victims ever be as lucky as Turia Pitt?

Some people are just more fortunate than others. That’s how this world works. This thought resonated in my mind as I read about Turia Pitt, a model-turned engineer who suffered 65% burns on her body during a bushfire in Australia. That was three years ago. Now, she is an author and an active charity fundraiser. In her words she is “the luckiest girl in the world.” She recently appeared on the front cover of Australian Women’s Weekly, with her resilient scars and her remarkable confidence.

I wish we had more Turias in Pakistan.

Turia was burnt by Mother Nature and maybe that is why she found the will to survive. Nature is never that cruel. But humans are. In Pakistan, a common acid-burnt victim has a completely different story. In the words of Alayna Ahmad having written on the facts of acid attack victims in Pakistan, “The victims are traumatized physically, socially and psychologically. Recovering from the trauma of an attack takes time, and even more time is needed for the victims to adjust to their disfigurements. They often become isolated and ostracized in society; the scars left by the acid going beyond just the skin.” These people, mostly women are at the disposal of savages condemning them to a lifetime of torture.

We have excellent organizations like the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan (ASF) working for the rights of these tormented humans. On 5th June 2014, ASF took part in a women parliamentary meeting in the Punjab Assembly to discuss the amendments for a comprehensive acid and burn crime bill. ASF chairperson Valerie Khan explained the prosecution rate for such cases was a mere 35% and that 65% of the victims never saw a ray of light. The statistics are horrifying with 50% attacks in southern Punjab alone. We also have people like Musarrat Misbah, the founder of Smile Again foundation working to salvage what remains of their beautiful smiles. These organizations are playing their part but what is the rest of the country doing?

credits: Smile Again Foundation - depilex
credits: Smile Again Foundation – depilex

Let’s look at our own selves first. How many of us will view these victims with anything more than pity? Can we treat these burnt souls like normal human beings; And give them another chance by providing employment opportunities, education or by a simple act of kindness that doesn’t involve rude stares and shocked faces? I have heard of cases where men have married acid-burnt victims as a humanitarian gesture but these are as rare as a Pakistani preferring dark skin color over white.

Now let’s look at an extremely influential medium – television. How many of our dramas are about anything but extra marital affairs, second marriages for sons, or mother and daughter-in-law conflicts? When will awareness of other heinous malpractices become more important? When will our fashion shows include anyone else but the stereotypical beauties? Why not empower a burnt victim by including her as a show-stopper in a bridal couture fashion show? Why not use this powerful medium to reveal an even more powerful message? The Oscar award-winning documentary film-maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinnoy surely awakened some slumbering minds with her documentary ‘Saving Face‘. Project Saave (Stand Against Acid Violence) is another commendable organization that seeks inspiration from Obaid’s documentary. These people set brilliant examples for our media organizations. But will our other media offshoots lend a hand to this cause?

2010 Oscar winner for best documentary – Saving Face – trailer

While I accept that no direct comparison can be drawn between Turia Pitt’s story and thousands of burnt women in Pakistan, I refuse to dismiss her example as a fantasy that cannot be equaled within Pakistan’s context. Turia Pitt belongs to an influential setup, has been able to afford more than a hundred surgeries, and has experienced a more welcoming society to help cope with her scars. These aspects are not easy to come by in our country, but surely an important lesson can be learned. The western infatuation with superficial beauty is unmatched. Even our shallow sense of beauty is influenced by international media. But if they can set the ball rolling towards a change in perception, why can’t we? If we can adapt many negative behaviors of other societies, why not the positives too? If acts like bringing burnt victims in the limelight can restore some of that lost spirit, then what’s the harm?

I am not floating impossible dreams here. I know the stark reality. These people may not live to become award-winning authors or marry prince charming. But they can at least live happy, content lives – where everyone will give them a second chance – an equal chance.

Can we help the unlucky become lucky?

 

*** This post was also published in The Express Tribune blogs here:

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Will Pakistani acid/burn victims ever be as lucky as Turia Pitt?

  1. I hope they are able to keep working. It is such a hazardous job trying to help these women. What courage these women and those that are trying to help them have.

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  2. Really nice, Nida.
    Thanks for sharing.
    The difference between Turia and the Pakistani women is that the Pakistani women are victims of violence, not accidents. Society first needs to reach the level where such crimes don’t happen in the first place, and that is what we need to strive for, in my opinion.

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    1. Yes that is the biggest problem. And then there’s the easy access to such things like acids. I just hope they pass the comprehensive crime bill and actually convict the savages. Then maybe people will take heed. Thanks for reading Fayeza!

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  3. Appreciate this passionate, articulate piece, Nida. Inspirational to see people like TP triumph over tragedy, refusing to be maRked by shame or self-pity. Koreans – esp natives in Asia – are a proud people, quite image-conscious. I understand they’ve gotten better the last few decades and have made Korea more disability-friendly in infrastructure, too. Thanks for speaking for the changes in our heart and society. Burn victims are tender to the feelings of an outcast and a small gesture of kindness and acceptance will go far to help bring healing.

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    1. You explained it beautifully Diana. Small gestures of kindness and acceptance as opposed to shock and pity can go a long way. I know I will look at such people differently now. Thanks for your valuable feedback!

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  4. The problem with Pakistanis (and I say Pakistani reluctantly as I’m sure the issue is widespread but not what I have witnessed in the west atleast) they don’t seem to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. I don’t believe it’s an education issue because I have seen very educated people (even amongst pakistanis based in canada) act like they are being most sensitive and responsible by commenting on the ‘life ruined’ or ‘terrible fate’ of those they are supposed to be empathizing with to their faces. Their ‘kind’ words are filled with pity that would make anyone lock themselves in a closet. They have absolutely no idea what they are doing wrong. I cringed when a quite well educated born and raised in Canada fellow kept pitying a very smart little child in the friends circle (who had a small physical obstacle he was dealing with) as he asked his mom about his treatment. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind right then but I knew he wouldn’t have understood no matter how long we argued about it. You’re talking about equal opportunities for acid attack victims? They live in a country where short people are often mocked as ‘chottu’ (shorty), overweight as ‘mottay’ (fatty), a bearded fellow as ‘maulwi’ and countless other names to distinguish between people based on their physical traits only – I don’t understand that sense of humour. I don’t understand that culture. I think people there need a serious dose of sensitivity training.

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    1. I hear you. I hear you. Like you said, its not about bookish education per se, its more about awareness. In Pakistan we don’t think twice about calling someone a name based on their looks..elders do it, children do it. And at times we don’t even realize there is something bad in it. But once you realize it, then it keeps hitting you everywhere you look. Something like that happened to me. I guess the most basic step would be to correct myself and then make sure my children get a good dose of ‘sensitivity training’, like you said.

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      1. It is very difficult to change a societal and cultural mindset. It takes each individual person making a change by noticing the problems in themselves and working on it and spreading their positive outlook and changes outward. Eventually people will notice and eventually, hopefully things will change. It is just going to take a VERY long time. Things are changing for the better here, just much slower than I or many people would like.

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      2. Very well explained Pavanneh. It is a long process. But as long as people are on the path, no matter how small the number, hope should remain alive. Maybe many generations later, someone will look back and recognize those who strived to change in their small spheres. Don’t you think so?

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