But Fakhra grew up in poverty in Pakistan, a conservative country run by powerful men. Her mother was a heroin addict. As a young girl, Fakhra went to work as a dancing girl in a Karachi red-light district. In Pakistan, dancing girl is a euphemism for prostitute.
She did this to support her family. As a young teenager, she bore a son.
Then, at the age of 18, Fakhra followed the script of Pretty Woman.
In 1997, she married a rich client, Bilal Khar. Unlike Fakhra, Bilal came from a rich and powerful family. His father, Mustafa Khar, photo at right, was a former governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province. The Pakistani Foreign Minister is Bilal's cousin. I don't have his picture, but you get the idea.
Bilal, photo below, who was in his mid-thirties, had been married twice before he married Fakhra. Take a good look at him, too, because Bilal Khar is not a nice guy.
After three years Fakhra's Pretty Woman marriage soured. She divorced Bilal, saying he physically and verbally abused her. That turned out to be the least of her problems.
In May 2000, two men went in the room where Fakhra was sleeping and poured acid all over her face. Four witnesses said they saw Bilal enter her house that night. Because his family was rich and powerful, the case got world-wide attention. Mr. Nice Guy denied it, of course.
A vindictive weapon against women
When acid comes in contact with skin, it burns through layer after layer, disfiguring every body part it touches. The process can go on for days, inflicting terrible pain on the victim. Depending on the severity of the attack, it can cause gruesome disfigurement. In Fakhra's case, it was horrific. Remember that girl with the pretty face?
This is what she looked like after Bilal threw acid on her. Actually, this photo was taken quite a while after it happened. She looked even worse in the beginning. The acid fused her lips, melted her breasts and destroyed one eye.
she might die in the night because her nose was melted and she couldn't
breathe," said Tehmina Durrani. "We used to put a straw in the little
bit of her mouth that was left because [her lips were] all melted
had reason to know how powerful the Khar family was. She had once been married to Bilal's father Mustafa. After she divorced him she wrote a memoir of the marriage titled: "My Feudal Lord."
Because of Bilal's prominent status within a powerful Pakistani family, the acid attack drew world-wide attention. Mr. Nice Guy denied the charges.
Vindictive men use acid to punish women for disloyalty or disobedience. Most acid attacks aren't fatal. The attacker knows this. He also knows the importance of a woman's appearance. It signifies their physical well-being and ability to procreate. Most of all it signals their desirability as a partner. Severe disfigurement can end any hope of future marriage. The attacker takes his revenge by inflicting terrible pain and marking her for life. Her disfigurement also sends a powerful warning to other women. See? It could happen to you.
A living death
When a person's
face is disfigured, others shun them. They turn away from the hideous
injuries, the sagging shapeless skin. Such attacks are common in male-dominated
countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and many others. Fakhra
was 22 when she was attacked, but many victims are younger. The Aurat
Foundation, a women's rights group, reports that 70% of the victims are under
the age of 18.
In 2011 alone, Pakistani women were the target of 8,500 acid
attacks and other acts of violence. Think about it. An average of 23
attacks a day! Because the Aurat Foundation relies primarily on media
reports, they believe the numbers are actually much higher. So you don't forget it, here's a before and after photograph. Can you tell I'm pissed off?
No justice for Fakhra
Near death after the attack, Fakhra was hospitalized for three months. Her family rejected her. Once a source of income, she was now a liability. She desperately needed medical treatment, which they could not afford. When the Pakistani government did nothing to help her, Tehmina Durrani, the ex-wife of Bilal's father, became her friend and advocate. Italy offered to help, but at first Pakistani officials refused to give Fakhra a passport. They claimed that sending her to Italy would give the country a "bad name."
Italian officials brought Fakhra and her son to Rome, gave them a place to live and arranged for her son to attend a good school. A Milan cosmetics firm paid for her treatment by Italy's highly regarded reconstructive surgeon, Doctor Valerio Chavelli.
Meanwhile, Fakhra's cowardly attacker was hiding. Police finally arrested Bilal in 2002. But at the trial, the four witnesses who said they saw him enter her house retracted their statements. Prior to trial, they complained of intimidation by Bilal Khar. No matter. In December 2003, the judge dismissed the charges against him. Fakhra was not well enough to attend the trial.
Fakhra learned to speak fluent Italian. People in Rome came to know and love her. She could walk freely through the streets without fear of embarrassment. Waiters treated her with dignity and respect. But her road to recovery was long and arduous. Over the next ten years, she endured 38 surgeries. Not 1 or 2 surgeries, thirty-eight grueling operations.
The first few surgeries were particularly difficult. "Her lower lip was attached to her torso," said Doctor Chavelli. "She had no neck, and her eyes were permanently open."
But Chavelli's efforts gave Fakhra renewed hope each time she saw her improved appearance. In 2011, she rejoiced when the Pakistani Parliament passed a law against acid terrorism that mandated a minimum 14-year sentence and a $11,000 fine. But a Pakistani lawyer who works with acid victims believes Pakistan's male-dominated police force and court system may subvert the law. "Regardless of the laws you bring, if you are poor and a woman, you will not get justice from the courts in Pakistan."
After her 38th operation in 2011, Fakhra was finally able to move her mouth and one eye. Her once beautiful face, though still scarred, had regained a semblance of its former shape.
In one of her last interviews, photo left (February 2012), Fakhra denounced Pakistani men who brutalize women. She said these men should be treated the way they have treated the women whose lives they ruined. She vowed to return to Pakistan and press for justice as soon as her health stabilized.
"When I come back," she said, "I
will reopen the case and fight."
But friends feared for her safety, and Fakhra
despaired of getting justice. A spokeswoman for the
Aurat Foundation said: "She realized the system in Pakistan was never
going to provide her with relief or remedy. She was totally disappointed that
there was no justice available to her."
"If I don't get back in my lifetime," she said, "promise to take my dead body home."
On February 28, 2012, Fakhra rejoiced when "Saving Face," a documentary about acid victims, won an Oscar, the first awarded to a Pakistani filmmaker, female director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
But the grueling surgeries had taken their toll. Less than a month later on March 17,
Fakhra leaped to her death from her sixth floor apartment in Rome. She was 33 years old.
Return of her body to Pakistan reignites the furor over the case.
Outraged women gathered to protest the violence against women in Pakistan and acid attacks in particular.
I didn't see any protests about it in the United States, but maybe presidential politics got in the way.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, Bilal went on TV and again denied his guilt, repeating his bogus claim that a man with the same name had done it.
He even had the gall to criticize the media for hounding him, saying: "You people should be considerate. I have three daughters and people tease them at school." Notice he doesn't have the guts to look you in the eye.
Fakhra's friend Tehmina Durrani said, "The whole country should be extremely embarrassed. [Italy] took responsibility for a Pakistani citizen for thirteen years because [Pakistan] gave her nothing, not justice, not security." Things might have been different if Fakhra had been the daughter of a politician or general, "but who's going to fight for a dancing girl?"
Oscar winner Ms. Obaid-Chinoy said: "I hope the man responsible for this will face justice. The tragedy is that it took a film and a suicide to bring the problem of acid violence to national attention."
Where's the "Justice for Fakhra?"
I admire courageous women and Fakhra had more courage than most. She fought the good fight. Unfortunately, she was born female in a country that has no use for women. Then her scumbag ex-husband doused her with acid and got away with it. I better not hear anyone say Fakhra gave up. Let them walk in her shoes for one day, never mind ten years ... 3,650 days of pain and misery.
See more details on this and other cases, see DARK DEEDS, Volume One
Why isn't her story still in the news? Where's the outrage? The NY Times is still covering the story, but few others are. CNN reports on the Syrian government attacks on civilians. Why not do a special report on Fakhra and these horrible acid attacks? Why aren't the TV pundits and radio talk shows railing against this mistreatment of women? Do me a favor, okay? Spread this post far and wide. Let's get a "Justice for Fakhra" movement going. Tell me what you think about this. The comment form is there so have at it. NOPD homicide detective Frank Renzi signing off.