Not Just Skin Deep


Whenever anybody meets Fozilitun Nessa, the first thing they learn about her is the moment that she would most like to wipe from her life: the moment a neighbour, enraged by the rejection of his marriage proposal, flung acid into her face. He could not have her, so he branded her. After eight rounds of surgery, she bears the mark still. Further surgery could help to conceal the damage, but she has had enough. She has nothing to be ashamed of, she says. She did nothing wrong, and her scarred face is not her fault. It is his fault — the one who did it to her.

Fozilitun visited Australia from Bangladesh as UNIFEM‘s guest for International Women’s Day. She has come to talk about the work of the Acid Survivor’s Foundation, the organisation that arranged for her surgery and for whom she is now a board member. But listening to her address a 900-strong audience in Canberra, it was clear that she had also come because speaking out and making herself visible is the best victory that she can have. Her attacker must have thought that if she survived her injuries, she would hide herself away. She hasn’t.

Hundreds of women (and some men) are killed or maimed by acid attack in South Asia each year, across a myriad of ethnic and religious communities. They are punished for a range of supposed transgressions. For refusing a suitor, like Fozilitun. For failing to adhere to ordained dress codes. For transgressing caste boundaries. For failing to bring enough dowry to a marriage, like Noor Bibi’s daughter.

I met Noor Bibi some years ago in Pakistan, just a few hours after her daughter had died, her face burned away by the acid flung by her husband and his brothers. Noor Bibi was a widow with no sons, living with her brother’s family in a village outside Lahore. She was very poor, but she had married off her daughter with the best dowry she could afford. It was not enough. After the wedding, the groom’s family kept demanding more and more money. Noor Bibi’s daughter was their hostage — when their demands were not met, they beat her. Noor Bibi gave and gave until she had nothing more to give. After that, they had no more use for her daughter.

Noor Bibi had come to Lahore with her daughter and sat at her bedside as she died. She traced her fingers across her own face as she described the damage the acid had wrought upon her only child. Her eye, her nose, her ear, all burned away. Her young son remained in the custody of the family who had killed her. Noor Bibi hoped to reclaim her grandson. But her daughter was gone.

In strictly relative terms, Fozilitun escaped lightly. She is still alive; she still has her vision, her ability to smile. But her life is split into "before" and "after". Before the attack, she lived with her extended family in the provincial town of Comilla, 100 kilometres south-east of the capital, in a combined household with her four uncles and their families as well as her own parents and siblings. She was a good student and planned to become a school principal one day. She winces when she talks of those plans.

"It’s a very painful question, to think about those ambitions. That’s totally finished."

After the burning, the weeks when she thought that she might die, the surgery and yet more surgery, she was determined to continue her education and her life. She left her hometown to go to university in the capital, Dhaka. Her older sisters had completed their degrees, but she was the first daughter in the family to move away from home alone — a bold, transgressive step in Bangladeshi society. She was also the first in her family to complete her Masters degree, and she now has a management position in telecommunications, with 20 employees under her supervision. She lists all her accomplishments with quiet pride. She undertook all of them, she says, to prove that she could. And to prove that "he" — the man who burned her, the man she does not name — could not stop her.

But still she carries the stigma wherever she goes. People notice her, in places where it is best not to be noticed. They know what happened to her — the thickened scar tissue across her face tells its own story. Or they think they know – often they need to be told, over and over, that it was not her fault, that none of the acid-scarred women brought this mark upon themselves.

And overlying the story of the acid, of the years since "he" left his mark, are more ordinary stories of day-to-day life as a young woman living alone in Dhaka. She has been boarding with a family, but that is coming to an end. She needs to find somewhere new, and it is not easy. She needs somewhere safe, somewhere secure. "Security is the most important thing for me," she says. It is not easy, as a woman alone.

I think of Noor Bibi as I listen to Fozilitun. In many ways they are very different — Fozilitun is younger, much better educated; an urban professional rather than a village peasant. But both their lives have been marked by acid. And each of them has had to find their way alone, in a society where it is expected that women’s lives will be negotiated by others.

Fozilitun is not entirely alone, however. There are her work colleagues, and her fellow activists from the Acid Survivors Foundation. And she talks affectionately about her family – her sisters and their children, her younger brother’s academic achievements. But she does not live with them, and that is regarded as very far from ideal. Her mother is anxious about her – she is a source of gossip, living all alone in the big city, travelling around the world, unmarried at the age of 26. Why hasn’t she settled down, at her age?

And she would like to settle down, one day. She would like to get married. But she will marry the man of her choice, "a man who loves me — me," she says, stabbing her finger to herself, "who loves me from his heart." She has a good job, a decent salary, but she does not want a man to marry her for that. She does not want to be reduced to her earning capacity any more than she wants to be reduced to her scars.

And so she continues to make plans. She would like to undertake further study in gender and development, and to continue in her career. She is not a burden on anyone, so no one is entitled to tell her that she should not live alone, that she should marry a man who does not love her from his heart. And she refuses to feel ashamed.


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