In 2003, Pakistani beautician, philanthropist and entrepreneur Massarat Misbah was closing up one of her many beauty salons when a veiled young woman walked in and asked her for help. When the woman removed her face covering, Misbah was shocked. The woman’s face had been burned into disfigurement by an acid attack. The acid victim begged the famous beautician to help her restore her face.
This encounter changed Misbah’s life, along with many others. After being approached by the acid burns victim, Misbah decided to expand her chain of beauty businesses to include a not-for-profit organisation assisting victims of acid attacks to restore their appearance, apply for jobs, find shelter and rebuild their lives.
The organisation is called the Smile Again Foundation, and it has now helped over 500 Pakistani women recover from life-altering acid attacks to their faces and bodies.
So what is an “acid attack”? The answer is as disturbing as it is tragic. An acid attack is a violent encounter during which the perpetrator throws burning acid on the face, eyes and body of the victim. Acid attacks can cause extreme disfigurement and can affect critical organs – a single attack can result in comas and even death.
Acid attacks are very common in Pakistan, and are used in one situation more than any other – they are an extremely common weapon of domestic violence. 70% of all acid attack victims are women, and the vast majority of these women are attacked by their partners or former partners during marital disputes. In some cases, even family members of husbands have attacked wives with burning acid following relationship breakdown.
These attacks may also be on the rise in Pakistan. The Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan found 142 cases of acid attacks in 2013, up from 110 in 2012. These cases were overwhelmingly considered acts of gender-based violence.
One woman, Bushra Safi, was asked to pay $500 to her husband’s family. When Safi admitted she could not pay the money her husband demanded, he threw acid at her face, almost killing her. Safi was in a coma for six months following the attack, and even when she woke up her eyes remained burned closed and her nose burned off altogether, Vice Magazine reports.
Ten years after the attack, Safi discovered Misbah’s not-for-profit, the Smile Again Foundation. Misbah helped her receive medical attention and Safi has now undergone 150 operations to reconstruct her face, thanks to the foundation. Safi, as well as Misbah’s hundreds of other clients, receives free psychological and medical care as well as free vocational training and assistance.
“To me, Depilex Smile Again Foundation is a platform for survivors of acid and kerosene oil. It exists for them to come out of terrible situations and try to change their lives for the better. One of the main aims of DSF after giving our patients reconstructive surgery is to teach them a skill and find them jobs so that they can become independent and contribute to society,” Misbah told Tribune.
Misbah’s efforts to help acid attack victims earned her the Pakistani Presidential Award for Pride of Performance in 2010.
“I am a very patriotic person and for me having my efforts recognised nationally by the government was a very proud moment,” she said of the award.
“Pakistan is a beautiful country at the brink of change in every industry. Although it is frustrating at times, I believe that we, as a nation, will come out of it stronger than ever. It is up to us to do whatever we can to help.”
Misbah has used her fame – achieved through her successful beauty salon chain Depilex, among other things – to raise the profile of acid attack victims in Pakistan. While the practice is very common, particularly in domestic violence settings, Pakistani law has been very reluctant to pursue justice for its victims. This may be beginning to change – in 2012, the Pakistani Senate passed new laws imposing stricter sentences for perpetrators of acid attacks. Unfortunately, enforcement of these laws has been less than stringent.
During her career in cosmetics and beauty, Misbah has also managed to run a hugely successful chain of beauty salons and develop her own brand of halal cosmetics. She is also a regular guest and keynote speaker at universities around the world – just last week, she was brought to Australia to run workshops and lectures on her work in Pakistan battling against this violent and misogynistic crime.