BANGLADESH: Bangladeshi Women Scarred by Acid Attacks

Saturday, May 21, 2011
Radio Netherlands Worldwide
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

She is a keeper of healing secrets. Every now and then Nurun Nahar would gently squeeze a woman's hand and whisper, "It will hurt; you might not recognise your face, but if I can get through, so will you."

A survivor of an acid attack in 1995, Nahar, 32, now counsels other victims of acid attacks. She says some victims are virtually catatonic, some wail, some deny, almost all are in pain and feel helpless. She tells them her story, how a spurned lover hurled acid when she was 16. She listens to their stories.

Death penalty
Acid attacks continue in Bangladesh despite a 2002 law making them punishable by death and imposing a no-bail policy on perpetrators. Sample this: Between 1999 and 2009, almost 3,000 people were attacked, according to the Dhaka-based Acid Survivors Foundation, out of which about 68 per cent were women and girls.

The numbers have waned, falling from 367 incidents in 2002 to 116 in 2009. But even now property disputes, jealousy, rejected love, eve teasing, dowry, a fight over a bucket of water and family feuds can spur an attack.

"The damage is irreversible and healing ongoing," says Nahar, her hair loosely tied in a bun covering her charred left ear.

Nahar and her attacker, Jasim Sikdar, then 21, lived in the same Patuakhali village. But he belonged to the landowning class and she lived with her widowed mother and sister in a mud hut. He stalked her, harassing her on her way to school.

He proposed to her, but she firmly rebuffed him. His wooing then gave way to threats to destroy her beauty. "I chose to ignore him, didn't take him seriously," she says.

Then, one balmy July night, a gang of eight young men broke into her house. They tried to pull her out. But mother and daughter held each other tightly - scuffling, howling and refusing to let go. Sikdar and his friends pinned Nahar down and squirted acid over her face.

"Water," she recalls screaming. "I am burning." But the water stung so she pushed away, writhing in pain and shock. The acid ate into her skin. When she touched her face it felt gooey and bloody - like melted wax. "Everyone thought the boys had sliced my face with a dagger."

The doctors in the nearby town and the district hospital were clueless. She was moved to the government-run Dhaka Medical College. Lying in bed, she was often quiet, visiting her past. The school pranks, walks, giggles, exam notes, teenage dreams. "The injury would heal, everything will be same," she remembers thinking.

For five months her tight-knit family guarded her, kept her away from her own reflection. One day she stole a pocket-sized mirror from the cleaning lady's handbag. She fainted. "Then I realised the damage. I looked like a monster," she says.

Pills and creams blunted her pain, but her face was mangled with jarred and discoloured scars. Her spirit battered. After nine months Nahar returned to the support of her villagers. But nothing could stop her anxieties.

Nasreen Huq, a volunteer activist for Naripokkho, a Dhaka-based women's rights group, publicised her case. Nahar's medical bills were waived and she moved to Dhaka. Within a year Sikdar and four of his friends were given life sentences.

"No punishment is enough. If I see him maybe I will beat him up," Nahar says with an indignant edge in her voice.

Over the years she has gone through dozens of operations, skin grafts and medicines to restore some sense of normalcy to her scarred face. She shunned mirrors, dressed in dark-coloured enveloping cloaks. She brushed her teeth under the veil and ate alone. She wanted to be invisible and move like smoke.

"I never thought of suicide, but did not know how to live," she says. But Huq persisted in helping Nahar handle the trauma. "Everyone said the society should be ashamed and not me," Nahar says.

Gradually she shed the shroud, joined college and made friends. Today she is scorched but wiser with a new sense of dignity.

Nahar has worked with Naripokkho, Action Aid and other non-governmental organisations as a counsellor to other survivors and has become a vocal activist against acid violence. "But tragedy is written on my face. Even when I moved on, there are always those jabs reminding me of what I have lost," she says.

That attack robbed her of her looks, fleetingly crushed her soul and perpetually erased her faith in God. "My mother prays five times and tells me 'if you pray before sleeping you are safe,'" she says. But Nahar smiles ruefully, "That night also I prayed."

She asks if Allah is omnipotent why didn't he stop what happened. It was monsoon season; snakes were scuttling across flooded fields and water-logged backyards. "Why didn't Jasim and his friends slip and fall? Why didn't a snake bite them?" she asks.

She may never get those answers but she has certainly decided to give answers to others like her.