ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani acid attack victim Fakhra Younus had endured more than three dozen surgeries over more than a decade to repair her severely damaged face and body when she finally decided life was no longer worth living.
The 33-year-old former dancing girl — who was allegedly attacked by her then-husband, an ex-parliamentarian and son of a political powerhouse — jumped from the sixth floor of a building in Rome, where she had been living and receiving treatment.
Her March 17 suicide and the return of her body to Pakistan on Sunday reignited furor over the case, which received significant international attention at the time of the attack. Her death came less than a month after a Pakistani filmmaker won the country’s first Oscar for a documentary about acid attack victims.
Younus’ story not only drives home the woeful plight of many women in conservative Muslim Pakistan, it is also a reminder of how the country’s rich and powerful operate with impunity. Younus’ ex-husband, Bilal Khar, was eventually acquitted, but many believe he used his connections to escape the law’s grip — a common occurrence in Pakistan.
More than 8,500 acid attacks, forced marriages and other forms of violence against women were reported in Pakistan in 2011, according to The Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organization. Because the group relied mostly on media reports, the figure is likely an undercount.
“The saddest part is that she realized that the system in Pakistan was never going to provide her with relief or remedy,” Nayyar Shabana Kiyani, an activist at The Aurat Foundation, said of Younus. “She was totally disappointed that there was no justice available to her.”
Younus was a teenage dancing girl working in the red light district of the southern city of Karachi when she met her future husband, the son of Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a former governor of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab. The unusual pairing was the younger Khar’s third marriage. He was in his mid-30s at the time.
The couple was married for three years, but Younus eventually left him because he allegedly physically and verbally abused her. She claimed that he came to her mother’s house while she was sleeping in May 2000 and poured acid all over her in the presence of her 5-year-old son from a different man.
Tehmina Durrani, Ghulam Mustafa Khar’s ex-wife and his son’s stepmother, became an advocate for Younus after the attack, drawing international attention to the case. She said that Younus’ injuries were the worst she had ever seen on an acid attack victim.
“So many times we thought she would die in the night because her nose was melted and she couldn’t breathe,” said Durrani, who wrote a book about her own allegedly abusive relationship with the elder Khar. “We used to put a straw in the little bit of her mouth that was left because the rest was all melted together.”
She said Younus, whose life had always been hard, became a liability to her family, for whom she was once a source of income.
“Her life was a parched stretch of hard rock on which nothing bloomed,” Durrani wrote in a column in The News after Younus’ suicide.
Younus’ ex-husband grew up in starkly different circumstances, amid the wealth and power of the country’s feudal elite, and counts Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as a cousin.
Bilal Khar once again denied carrying out the acid attack in a TV interview following her suicide, suggesting a different man with the same name committed the crime. He claimed Younus killed herself because she didn’t have enough money, not because of her horrific injuries, and criticized the media for hounding him about the issue.
“You people should be a little considerate,” said Khar. “I have three daughters and when they go to school people tease them.”
Younus was energized when the Pakistani government enacted a new set of laws last year that explicitly criminalized acid attacks and mandated that convicted attackers would serve a minimum sentence of 14 years, said Durrani. She hoped to return someday to get justice once her health stabilized.
“She said, ‘When I come back, I will reopen the case, and I’ll fight myself,’ and she was a fighter,” Durrani said.
Durrani had to battle with both Younus’ ex-husband and the government to send her to Italy, where the Italian government paid for her treatment and provided her money to live on and send her child to school. Pakistani officials argued that sending Younus to Italy would give the country a bad name, Durrani said.
Younus was happy when Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for her documentary about acid attack victims in February, but was worried about being forgotten since she wasn’t profiled in the film, said Durrani.
Durrani said Younus’ case should be a reminder that the Pakistani government needs to do much more to prevent acid attacks and other forms of violence against women, and also help the victims.
“I think this whole country should be extremely embarrassed that a foreign country took responsibility for a Pakistani citizen for 13 years because we could give her nothing, not justice, not security,” said Durrani.