LAHORE, Pakistan — Renowned Pakistani human rights activist and makeup artist Musarrat Misbah was working a few years ago when she says, “a young girl clad in burka entered my salon and asked for help. I thought she was a beggar so I told her to leave. But she stayed. Then she revealed her almost completely burnt face to me and said, ‘You are a beautician, right? Can you fix my face?'”
The shock of seeing the disfigured girl’s face sparked Misbah to found the Smile Again organization — an organization dedicated to providing treatment and support to acid and kerosene attack survivors throughout Pakistan.
Smile Again is based in Lahore, but has locations in 33 Pakistani cities and offers 50 free cosmetic surgeries annually to people who cannot afford them — people who more often than not are women.
Experts on acid attacks estimate women and girls are victims in at least 75 percent to 80 percent of cases. For these female victims, an estimated 30 percent are under the age of 18.
And, in Pakistan, women suffer these attacks far too often.
Just last week, a man attacked his two young step-daughters for their refusal to marry the men he had selected for them. Muhammad Aslam, a mason from Pattoki village, threw acid on the two girls, aged 19 and 23, respectively, while they slept. The girls remain in critical condition at a local hospital, their faces now unrecognizable.
Such victims are the people that the Smile Again foundation exists to aid. According to the organization, it is “committed to providing acid survivors not only with medical care and assistance but also an adequate chance to become productive, self-reliant members of the society that has ostracized them.”
The heart and soul of the organization are its workers, the majority of whom are survivors bearing their own scars. One such employee is Sabira Sultana, who came to Smile Again eight years ago as a patient. As a teenager, she suffered a devastating acid attack at the hands of her husband.
“At the age of 16, when people start their lives, my life had just ended,” Sabira explains. “The acid attack destroyed my face. I look a tad better now after going through a number of surgeries, but the pain I suffered during the whole time is inexplicable.”
Now she works as Smile Again’s coordinator, welcoming fellow survivors with a warm smile and offering them some much needed solace in their newly found excruciating existences.
As explained by Misbah, such an organization and services are sorely needed in light of the government’s dismissal of the issue of acid attacks: “Pakistan is facing huge problems; there is an energy crisis, we have health issues, there is a dearth of clean drinking water in the country. Who gives a heck about a burnt girl? When we talk to government officials about these issues, they say: ‘How many people are attacked in Pakistan? It’s a country with a population of over 180 million.”
– Kelley Calkins