August 26, 2022
By Xari Jalil
Even now there are days, when Nayyab Ali lives on edge: checking if she is being followed, looking left and right before stepping out of the house.
“I used to be fearless, but this incident has scarred me for life,” she says. “I still have to keep the light on in my room sometimes just to feel secure. As for the rest of the house, I have made sure it is well protected.”
It was 2016, and Nayyab was living with her guru.
“One of my transgender friends was gang raped, and she came crying to my guru for help,” related Nayyab. “But Guru refused to help her saying that rape was part of our lives and that we had no choice but to live like that. When my friend pleaded with me next, to help her, I could not refuse.”
Nayyab’s guru had tried to stop them from going to the police station, saying this would only lead to more trouble. But she still helped her friend file an FIR at the police station.
The attack on Nayyab did not occur until sometime later.
“Following the FIR, there came intense pressure from the perpetrators to reconcile, and our guru did reconcile, without even telling us,” says Nayyab. “That night I had a dance at a mela in Mureedwala (Toba Tek Singh). On my way back, some men abducted me and dragged me away. For two nights they kept me in some place, sexually abusing me continuously. They also drank and partied, using me as a tool,” she says.
On the third night, when they came into the room again, Nayyab saw one of them holding a bottle of alcohol in his hand. Before she realized what was happening, the man threw the contents aiming for her face and fled.
“Instinctively I raised my arms to protect my face but managed to shield only my eyes,” she says. “But it hit my arm, my chin and neck, lips, chest, shoulder and belly. I was burning like someone had scalded me with hot water. Even at that time, I did not realize that what he had thrown at me was acid. I screamed like mad, and some people who were making milk and soda in the bazaar outside came rushing to help me and splashed me with that. I think it helped to prevent a lot of damage to a large extent afterwards.”
Nayyab stayed in the hospital for three months, fighting her depression and anger, waiting for her wounds to heal, and when she finally did come out, she was adamant about filing a case against the man who had done this to her.
So a case was filed under PPC 336-B. The man had fled to Dubai by that time, but he did return, and when he did he was immediately arrested. Now he is expected to come out of jail by 2023, a day Nayyab dreads.
“The loss that you face, you cannot recover your whole life,” she says. “No matter how many surgeries you have you cannot get rid of the trauma.”
The fact that acid is so easily accessible in the market is a worrying situation coupled with the fact that there is no law to govern the sale and regulation of this corrosive substance. The price too is easily affordable as acid is widely used in industries as well as in cleaning jobs within the household. So when anyone buys a bottle of acid, it is not suspicious, let alone questioned.
Highly concentrated acid is easily available in the country. The sale and purchase of acid are completely unregulated and one can buy any quantity of it without requiring any documentation – including CNIC. The easy availability of acid encourages the perpetration of acid violence.
For example, the price of a small bottle of ‘namak tezaab’ or hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the market can range from Rs10 to Rs14 per kilogram. The price differs according to the concentration, but on average either of the three most harmful acids – Nitric, Sulphuric or Hydrochloric – can be bought for Rs50.
“In 50 Rupees, the life of someone can be changed forever,” says policy analyst Gul Hassan Abbas, Executive Director of the Initiatives for Sustainable Development (ISD) – an organization that was at the forefront when the Acid Burns Bill was being drafted.
“In fact we see acid being used openly as an active ingredient in our local bathroom cleaners – sulphuric (H2SO4) acid is being used which is not being used anywhere in the world,” says Abbas. “A research study in India says that 90 per cent of skin cancer is caused by exposure to this stuff. It must be strictly regulated.”
Because the Bill is still lying pending with the Law Ministry for many years now, on paper there continues not to be a ban on the illegal sale or purchase of acid.
According to statistics provided by Punjab Police, there is a very high rate of acid attacks, with stats from 2019 showing at least 62 acid-throwing cases in Punjab only.
Investigation and court trials of these cases suggest that one of the major causes of acid attacks in Punjab happens to be the easy availability of acid.
“There is a need to regulate the sale and purchase of acid and to minimize its use for non-industrial purposes,” says Abbas. “The sale and purchase of acid should be fully documented including at shop level so that it cannot remain available for acid violence.”
But in Punjab, there is no law to regulate it.
The incidence of acid cases in Punjab is shown in another table, which organizes data by the Acid Survivors’ Foundation (ASF Pakistan).
According to ASF, from 2007 to 2013, there were about 949 reported incidents of acid violence across the country. Of the total number of cases, Punjab made it to the top with 589 cases, followed by Sindh (29), Balochistan (16), KP (16), Islamabad (10), FATA (6), and AJK (1). There were 282 cases of unknown origin.
Acid violence has been criminalized in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) through Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 2011. Under this Act, two new sections, 336 A and 336 B have been added to the Penal Code to deal exclusively with the hurt caused by corrosive substances.
Meanwhile, the Acid and Burn Crime Act, 2018, was an effort made to enact a more comprehensive law but this was limited to the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) and it dealt with defining, criminalizing, enforcing and rehabilitating aspects of the crime. However, as most laws go, this too was passed by the National Assembly but not by the Senate in time. Before anything, the Government changed and the new regime did not reintroduce to the new National Assembly.
However, it must be noted that both these laws do not address the issue of easy availability of acid in the market.
“At present, the sale of acid is dealt with the British drafted Poisons Ac, 1919,” says Abbas. “It deals with import, possession and sale of poisons as a whole. It extends to the whole of Pakistan and is a federal act, but the law is weak.”
Abbas points out several lacunae in this law, highlighting that the seriousness of acid violence is not reflected in the Act.
“First of all the Punjab government have not even made the Rules for this law,” he says. “Secondly, it calls for regulating the possession of poisons for any specific area, but not generally for the whole province. Importantly it talks about death by poison only, and not by acids. Unfortunately, even after the person is found guilty, the maximum penalty for misusing the possession of poison is merely a one-year imprisonment term and a fine of 1000 Rupees. Lastly, the Act is silent about regulations on the purchase of acids by people for non-industrial purposes. This gap in law warrants a new law to regulate this sector,” he says.
Note: Most statistical information pertaining to acid attack violence is related to survivors rather than perpetrators.
Chahat was at home in Rehmat Colony, Rahim Yar Khan, having her dinner when a friend told her that someone was calling her outside.
“It was 2019, and the end of the second roza in Ramzan,” she said. “I remember I was surprised why anyone would call me at that hour when it was time to eat. I left my food on my plate and went to see. It was dark and whoever it was, stood against the light so I could not see much. I called and asked what they wanted and the next thing I knew I was burning like I was in hell.”
Her screams led to her housemates and her friends to come to her rescue. She did not die, but she lost her eyesight completely.
At first, the police caught a suspect who Chahat later heard was her former boyfriend or girya as they are termed within the transgender community. “I told the police it could not have been him,” says Chahat. “But then later when they interrogated him they found that he had confessed saying he had done it because he did not like how I met other men.”
Chahat’s and her boyfriend had been fighting for some time over this issue.
“He had been after me for some time to stop working. He tried to put restrictions on me and at the same time would not even earn anything. I had to part ways.”
For a survivor, being burnt by acid, is living like a corpse, says Chahat. It is a plight worse than death.
The motivations for acid attacks in Pakistan are many. For women and transgenders the reasons are similar. Women can be attacked for rejection of marriage proposals, while transwomen are attacked when they spurn a lover.
The psychology is that the victim’s pain and suffering must be ensured because the man has suffered ‘dishonour’ because of her by refusing his request.
The easy and cheap availability of acid, traditional perceptions of gender in society, media influences and notions of shame or loss of honour, revenge, and retribution are all motives because of why acid is thrown on both women and transgenders in Pakistan.
Behind it, all, are the multi-layered patriarchal structures, and the entitlement that comes as a result.
Acid violence is a category of gender-based violence (GBV) and like other forms of GBV is about oppression and control. Acid violence is brutal especially if the victim survives and lives with not just the scars but the pain and the shame for life, leaving the person physically, socially and emotionally scarred for life. Specifically, this violent method of retribution melts human flesh and even bones, causing excruciating pain and terror, and leaves the victims mutilated for life.
“I went through a lot of surgeries, my skin on my neck had to be grafted, but there is still a visible scar which I have to bear with,” says Nayyab Ali. “It is under my chin. When I was first injured, my skin had melted and I could not even move my neck. Even now, even after the surgeries, I cannot turn my head properly. When it gets very hot, the damage increases. There can be pus or even bleeding.”
But the pain becomes multifold when it is mixed with social stigma.
“You can’t even have tea with people, because they look at your scars and you see their eyes change,” she says. “They hate you because they don’t like your face. COVID masks were a blessing for me because I found out a way to cover my chin. I accept my scars but I have to cover myself for others in order to make them feel comfortable. Otherwise, I have to face awkward questions. And sometimes people are even dubious about my role in the cause of the crime.”
Nayyab says she has always been a strong and determined person but she could have done so much more if she didn’t have the scars.
As victims are on the road to recovery, many of them have higher expectations. The Punjab government under Usman Buzdar offered treatment of acid victims in the government’s burns unit. But a lot of work has to be put in to counsel the patients too.
“It is a difficult thing to come to terms with but many victims think that after the surgery they will look like before. They have to be made to understand that it is reconstructive surgery that they must undergo which is only a bare minimum, and not cosmetic surgery which is a luxury. Reconstructive surgery is a need, it is not meant to beautify.” Eventually, however Nayyab says no matter how many surgeries are carried out, the victim remains depressed. Still some victims make do with whatever they can.
Dillagi, a transwoman from Multan lost her eyesight because of an acid attack, and had to fit in a stone eye.
But scars run deeper than just physical. The very first practical impact is on the trans person’s financial situation.
Nayyab herself went out for a tradition among her community called ‘Vidayi’, where transwomen visit those households where a male child is born to receive some kind of token payment in return for prayers and celebration.
Despite standing up as a political candidate from Okara in the last elections, and of her standing as a national figure among transgender activists, Nayyab says she still goes on Vidayi visits. But since the acid attack, one look at her face and the families reel in shock without even hiding their expressions. “It has impacted what I earn from it,” she says.
Chahat is in a worse situation especially because she is not educated. She has been stranded since the floods at home but even before that, her attacker made sure that her only way of earning – through dancing and private shows – was taken from her. Now she lives on charity.
The transgender community tends to face different kinds of violence against them in different regions. For instance, acid violence is most common in the south of Punjab, mainly because of the feudal system there, which propagates this pattern of violence, and in general the cultural practices there – (honour killing too is rampant in South Punjab). The transgender community in KP reports that they face the danger of being shot at as KP has a lot of gun violence, while in central Punjab most reports that emerge show sexual abuse.
But in terms of intimate partner violence (IPV), in many of the relationships obsession is a key factor where ultimately, such violence ensues.
“The trans community is focused on making money through various ways which when they are involved in a relationship, does not sit well with their partners,” explains Jannat Ali, a transgender activist. “Their partners then begin to stop them from begging or from prostitution or performances. But they cannot just stop, because its their main earnings, and also because in the name of acceptance the khwaja sirah also often gives money to their estranged family. This is the only way their families accept them.”
Because of their work as sex workers or dancers, their interaction with others often ends up making their partners jealous which ends up in such brutal attacks.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
While the Punjab Women Protection Authority (PWPA) has been authorized to officially table the Bill as a Government Bill, the government’s instability is causing a delay. The cabinet under Usman Buzdar approved the Bill, but now things are looking bleak until the government stabilizes.
“Right now after the Bill was approved by the cabinet, it has gone to the Law Ministry and it is lying there, pending to be approved,” says Abbas. “The government’s situation is such that they are more interested in political fights rather than legislative work. All we can do is wait.”