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The Evil That Men Do

9 minute read

The walls of Tehmina Durrani’s baronial home in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, are lined with both mirrors and Durrani’s own cool-hued paintings of women flying, dancing, sleeping, gazing dreamilylovely nudes in ethereal settings. Four months ago, a strange houseguest started drifting uncertainly through the elegant rooms, her head and face shrouded by a dark brown head-scarf. She stared at the paintings but took pains to avoid all those mirrors, explaining that she was afraid of herself.

The visitor was Fakhra Yunas, a 21-year-old former dancing girl who fulfilled the Pakistani equivalent of the American Dreammarriage into a rich and powerful familyonly to have her life virtually destroyed. Host Durrani was born into wealth and advantage and was a glamorous politician’s wifeuntil she went public with her own tale of victimhood. And so, Durrani and Fakhra became a team: privileged protector and wounded ward, trying to repair some of the damage done to Fakhra’s life. They have also become twin avengers determined to rip the veil from the cruelty and hypocrisy present in the upper echelons of Pakistani society. This is their story.

Last April, Fakhra was napping in her mother’s home on Napier Rd., the seedy red-light section of Karachi, the country’s rough-and-tumble commercial hub. It was a great distancein every wayfrom what she had hoped for when she married Bilal Khar, now 36, a former politician and scion of one of Pakistan’s best-known families. Five days earlier, after enduring constant physical abuse by her husband during three years of marriage, she had returned home.

Now, Fakhra was roused from her nap by the sound of Khar calling her name. He pushed back her head and poured liquid on her face. She thought he was forcing her to drink something. Fakhra wiped her eyes and saw her husband run from the room. She started to follow and looked down to see her clothes dissolving into her skin. Naked and suddenly burning all over, she collapsed, screaming. She had no idea what had happened to her.

In Urdu, they call it tez ab, or sharp water. Acid, nitric or hydrochloric, has long been the weapon of retribution for Pakistani men against disloyal, disobedient or overly determined women. One reason is that acid is cheap and readily available. Another: surviving an acid attack is often worse than dying. The acid burned the hair off Fakhra’s head, fused her lips, blinded one eye, obliterated her left ear and melted her breasts. More than a year after the attack, the once full-lipped, large-eyed, long-haired beauty is unrecognizable. She breathes with difficulty. “I don’t look human anymore,” she says. “My face is a prison for me.” When four-year-old son Nauman first visited his mother in the crowded public hospital where for three agonizing months she fought for her life, he ran away crying: “This is not my mother!”

Fakhra was born in the Napier Rd. red-light district. Her mother is a heroin addict, and Fakhra began work as a nautch (dancing girl) at age 11. The nautch tradition goes back centuries in certain parts of the subcontinent; sometimes the dancing girls are legitimate performers, often they’re prostitutes. Fakhra started sex work immediately after she began menstruating. A customer bought her virginity for $2,000, a set of gold jewelry and a Rado watch. “Whatever you’re going to do,” she told him, “do it quickly because I want to go home!”

At 18, already the mother of three-year-old Nauman, she met Khar at a party in Karachi. “I thought he was a very big, rich, generous man,” Fakhra recalls. “Why should I not catch him?” At the start, he impressed Fakhra by paying $340 to simply stay with her and talk. “Your face is so innocent,” he said. “I like you so much.” Fakhra had never encountered anyone like him. “I thought, ‘What a man,'” she recalls. “‘He hasn’t done anything to me and he’s so handsome.'”

By marrying Khar, Fakhra ascended into one of the most recognizable families in the country. Khar’s father, Ghulam Mustafa Khar, is a major landowner and property is still the primary source of power and wealth in Pakistan. The Khars rule their area of Punjab province as feudal lords. Mustafa Khar was once dubbed the “Lion of the Punjab” after a massive election victory, and served as the Chief Minister and Governor of the province in the 1970s. Son Bilal treated his new, second wife as a possession, and beat her severely when she displeased him. When she abandoned him, he took his revenge with acid.

After three months, Fakhra was released from the hospital and a grotesque reconciliation took place. Fakhra returned to Khar, who kept her hidden away in cheap hotels and brought her for a time to his family farm, where she was put to work in the kitchen. Khar insisted that he loved herbut his abuse did not stop. After six months, the exhausted and fragile woman decided to break her chains. Although her life as a woman largely ended the day of the acid attack, Fakhra, after the doctors surgically separated her fused lips, was able to talk, could still walk and, most importantly, found the will to live. Desperate, she sent an sos message to Durrani, whom she had once met.

If anyone could empathize with Fakhra, it was Durrani. She was the sixth wife of the Lion of the Punjab. She helped raise Bilal Khar, Fakhra’s husband, and, at age 36, the younger Khar still refers to her as “Mummy.” Durrani detailed her life with the Khars in a 1991 autobiography called My Feudal Lord, and it is a hair-raising tale. The elder Khar beat Durrani, kidnapped their children, had a rip-roaring affair with her youngest sister and once forced Durrani to strip naked when she disobeyed his orders. Domestic abuse is routinely swept under the carpet in Pakistan; Durrani’s book put it in the headlines both domestically and abroad. My Feudal Lord has been translated into 36 languages and Durrani continues to receive awards and recognition overseas for her couragealthough within her own country she is branded an opportunist and publicity-hound. Following the book’s publication, her parents disowned her because of its unsavory revelations.

Durrani had heard of Fakhra’s plight shortly after the acid attack, but was reluctant to interfere. “I never wanted to get involved with this family again,” she says. But after meeting Fakhra, she found it impossible to turn her backespecially after recalling how Mustafa Khar had threatened to disfigure her with acid years before. “Fakhra,” she says, “could have been me.”

As a result, she has rejoined the battle against the Khars. After Fakhra moved into Durrani’s house, the younger Khar began making daily threats over the telephone. “First I will shoot your mother in the knees with a 12-bore gun so she crawls,” Khar told Durrani’s son Ali, his half-brother. “She’s become too used to standing up. No one will be able to catch me.” Given the power of the Khar family, that is probably true. In their ancestral village of Kot Addu, Durrani explains in My Feudal Lord, “the Khars were the law.” Fakhra’s family filed a complaint with the Karachi police after the acid attack, but no arrest was ever made. When Durrani heard in July that Bilal Khar was trying to bribe Fakhra’s family to withdraw the complaint, she confronted them. “Do not fear him,” she warned the family. “Fear me!” (The complaint remains in force.) Durrani wants justice. “I’m looking for accountability,” she says. “Fakhra is a symbol of the disorder of my country and any other Muslim country where women don’t have a voice.”

Bringing acid attackers like Bilal Khar to trial is Durrani’s long-term goal. Her immediate concern has been to restore a semblance of physical normality to Fakhrawhich will take at least three years and an estimated 30 operations, after which her face and upper body should be restored. When she received a courage award in April from the Milan-based Sant’Angelica cosmetics firm, Durrani brought Fakhra’s case to the company’s attention and it offered to underwrite the cost of her reconstructive surgery. The next challenge was to procure a national ID card for Fakhra so she would be eligible for a passport to travel to Italy for the operation. A technicality held up the process until Durrani marched into the office of Pakistan’s Interior Minister, retired Lieut. General Moinuddin Haider, known as a progressive and no-nonsense official. The minister’s response, Durrani says, was that publicizing Fakhra’s case abroad would sully Pakistan’s reputation. (Haider’s office says the minister “assured his cooperation for her [Fakhra’s] Fakhra’s] departure abroad.”) Durrani went over his head to the office of President Pervez Musharraf, and secured the passport.

Fakhra’s pain may never cease. She is in Italy awaiting surgery, learning to speak Italian and getting used to a foreign land that will be her home for the foreseeable future. “I not only have hope,” she says, “but I also have strength.” Durrani hopes when Fakhra is ready to return home, she can do so in safety. One thing she does not tolerate is Fakhra’s shunning of mirrors. “I made her remove her veil and look at herself,” Durrani says firmly. “Fakhra’s face is the crime of a man against a woman. It is not shame for her.” The shame resides back in Pakistanwhere a powerful man’s unpunished rage can scar forever a woman’s life.

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