This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.
Recently in Bangladesh women’s groups have begun organising against acid-throwing. Here Linda Regan interviews Bina Akhtar, a survivor of this particular form of male violence against women, and we report on the activities of Naripokkho, a women’s group dedicated to breaking the silence and achieving justice. (Translation by Moonah Sen)
Linda Regan: Can you tell us something about acid throwing, what type of thing this is, who does it, in what circumstances, and how often it happens?
Bina Akhtar: It is usually uneducated and unemployed men who throw acid. They do this when they are rejected by women who are better educated than themselves. Sometimes these men propose to the girls again immediately after they have been turned down; they throw acid as revenge if they are refused a second time. Dowry is another reason for acid throwing.
Linda: So when you say that it’s men who are doing it to women who refuse them, is it women who refuse to marry them or women just refusing to have relationships with them?
Bina: If a woman happens to be attractive and does not want to marry the man who fancies her and the man realises that he stands no chance of marrying this woman, they throw acid so that nobody else will marry her, leaving him free to do so.
Linda: So it ensures the woman cannot get involved with someone else?
Bina: That is right — they want to ruin the looks of the woman and thereby prevent her from marrying anybody else.
Linda: And is it usually young women this is happening to?
Bina: Yes — girls from 11 up to 18, and for dowry reasons up to 24.
Linda: What happens in a dowry situation, how is that different?
Bina: Lots of things are given to the in‑laws as dowry. Then, within three to four months after the wedding the in‑laws ask the woman to get more money from her parents. The woman mentions what her parents gave as dowry — the money, the bicycle, nice things for the house‑ and asks why they want still more money. Acid throwing happens when the woman does not comply with the wishes of the in‑laws. A husband could throw acid even after twenty five years of marriage when the children are at university and college.
Linda: Why do they do this to older women?
Bina: For money. If the husband is an alcoholic, takes drugs, lives with another woman or leaves his wife for another woman, the wife objects to this and tells him to stop. They have a mighty row and he beats her up. The woman then refuses to depend on her husband. This hurts his pride and he throws acid at her.
Linda: How widespread is this? Have you any idea about how many women this is happening to in a year?
Bina: As far as we know, this happened to 108 women during 1997 in Bangladesh. There were quite a few instances in 1995‑1996. This is from the newspaper cuttings we collect. The number of cases for 1998 up until now is about thirty.
Linda: Is that the main way you hear about cases — through newspaper reports?
Bina: That’s right. I take cuttings from papers if they are on acid burns. But it is not always possible for me to go and visit them straight away. The women who suffer this often live in villages. They are taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital if they can not be treated in the village. I visit the hospital every Saturday. I saw five acid burn cases last Saturday. One woman was pregnant, one had just only got married, and another woman had been married for three years and was eight months pregnant. All these women were hit because of dowry reasons. Eight months pregnant — she was screaming with pain. On top of this she is probably going to have the baby.
I am not worried about myself. What is going to happen to these women?
There was this Hindu girl from Manikgunge called Shukla. She was a very attractive girl. She was out one day when some boys got hold of her and did things to her, including kissing her, against her will. But they did not do her any real harm. Soon after this she was asleep in her room when these men dug a tunnel under the floor and gained entry into her room. They dragged her out of her room. In all there were eleven men in the gang and they all raped her. She pleaded with the man who was taking her clothes off and said that she would let him have his way with her but not the others. But they took her clothes off just the same and after they had all raped her, they threw a bucketful of acid over her naked body and they ran away. She was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital immediately but sadly she died. Four women victims of acid attacks I know have since died.
Linda: Is it usually a man doing this on his own or are there many cases where there are more than one man involved?
Bina: One man on his own could never drag a woman out of her home and throw acid at her. Usually a few friends get together to do this. Sometimes there are fifty, even sixty men in the gang — let alone eleven men! A group of men do it together because they know that they will never get away with it if they get caught doing such a horrible thing. The family might even kill them. That is why they cover the area well by positioning themselves at a yard or so from each other. They even do things like cut off the electricity line around the house before they attack.
Linda: So some of the cases are extremely well planned and organised.
Bina: Oh yes, they start planning a year before the attack. They never attack without any planning.
Linda: Can you tell us your story Bina, what happened to you?
Bina: I was fifteen when this happened, I am seventeen now. There was only a couple of days planning the attack on me, and the men involved were terrorists, there are two political parties in Bangladesh — the BNP and the Awami League, they belonged to the Awami League, the ruling party.
Linda: So do they use acid in other ways to help the party?
Bina: Yes they do. There are quite a few tanneries where I used to live. They use cowhide for making shoes and other things. In this tannery they use sulphuric acid for melting iron. These men asked for some acid, and the man in the tannery refused twice. So they beat him up and left with a container full of acid.
Linda: And why did they target you?
Bina: We used to live in Bogurah, we decided to come and live in Dhaka for two months, all our family came. This man Dano, whose proper name is Maksud Rahman, used to visit the house we rented. He became a regular visitor, but we never used to come out of our rooms. Dano had heard about us though and was curious as well as eager to see the ‘Pakistani’ girls. One evening we sat down for our meal, Dano was standing by the door eating a piece of meat and making faces at my uncle. He said nothing, he was just shaking his head. Dano left soon after this and my uncle asked the landlord who the man was. The landlord said he was a relative of us, and that he was a decent man.
One day my two younger brothers were on their way to school. Dano confronted my brothers and asked them why we were going back to Bogurah. My brothers told him because we did not like the area we were living in. I was standing by the side and Dano was making snide comments about girls from Bogurah, saying that they were like hot chillies, they don’t talk to anybody, they are so proud and conceited about their beauty.
Dano then started to send us something everyday, things like letters, guavas, garlands. But we never accepted them. One day he sent us a garland with some sedative in it. A little girl brought it over. My cousin smelt something very strong emanating from the garland, she threw it away. The little girl went back to Dano and said we had thrown the garland away. This annoyed Dano and the next thing he did was propose.
Unknown to us, he saw our landlord and told him he intended to propose. The landlord advised him against this, that my family would not let me marry him, and we would get married when we got back to Bogurah. This annoyed Dano and he said there that he would put a red stamp on white skin — you know acid makes skin go red first and then it turns black.
On the evening of 26 August we all had our meals and went to bed. We were asleep. About 2.30 in the morning a gang appeared in our room; there were seven of us sleeping in that room. Dano came in first and had positioned his mates at different points in the room to cover the area, and then he came into the room where I was. He shone his torch to look for me. He found us — my mother my sister and myself. He kept on shining his torch, I had big eyes and the eyelids did not quite close. The torchlight shone on my half open eyes. I sat up and saw a tall man standing in front of me. I saw somebody standing at the door, I then saw that somebody was throwing something at my sister. I stretched out my arm to prevent this stuff going on her and some of it fell on my arm and the rest went on the floor. I then felt the heat from the stuff, I pushed my sister out of the way and went and stood in front of this man. I decided that if somebody had to die, it would be me. At this point they threw the acid on my head. I started to scream. It felt as though I was on fire, the whole room was on fire. My hair and eyebrows got singed and came off. My nose then came off. I thought they were pouring boiling water on me. I started to run out of the room. My uncle followed me out, they beat him up.
My mother then put her arms around me and started to scream. She then felt a few drops of the stuff on her and she tried to wash it off. I did not do that — I did not stop to put water on mine. Instead I ran out looking for my uncle and found him lying unconscious in the alleyway. I then started to cry as there would not be anybody to look after me if he died.
This was three o’clock in the morning. There was a lot of shouting and screaming going on. My whole body was on fire though I did not realise that it was acid. I did not lose consciousness. While we were screaming Dano and his men sneaked away. Nobody, neighbours or anybody else, came out to help us. People were scared of them, and felt they would get killed if they said anything. Everybody was scared, these people were known terrorists. There was just my family — my uncle lying there and me. Somebody appeared with a bed and I was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
The hospital didn’t have the injections I needed, they were very expensive. At that time they did not have much knowledge on how to treat acid cases. A long time had elapsed since the acid had been thrown and I started to scream. All they were doing was looking at my raw flesh. I was screaming but I was fully conscious and knew exactly what was happening around me. I could not bear the pain, no injections, and I punched a doctor saying ‘why aren’t you giving me any injections?’ I ripped the clothes off a nurse.
Just before five in the morning they told me that they could not give me the injections without the consent of a doctor, because my case was something out of the ordinary. Eventually they gave me twelve injections all at once and put about five fans around me, took all my clothes off and put me under a mosquito net. A few days later they tried to get the burnt patches to rot, but they were not able to do so. They then used some equipment to scrape the black skin off my body. They cut off the bits of my clothes which still stuck to my flesh. My head and face had swelled up. They operated on me seven times.
They had had some acid cases before, but they were not as serious as mine, did not need a lot of treatment and medication. Mine was the most serious they had — twice a week they used to have case conferences on me discussing what operation next, how they could make muscles grow. Dano came to the hospital disguised as a doctor, he intended to kill me. The doctor said that I was going to die anyway, so he did not need to kill me!
They had operated on me six times, and we didn’t have the money for the seventh operation — we had sold our cars to pay for the operations. Naripokkho used to visit me in the hospital. They do not provide financial help themselves, but they liaise with other organisations for money. They arranged with an organisation to give my uncle the money for my seventh operation. My uncle was on the way to the hospital to pay, Dano and his gang got hold of him, beat him up again and robbed him of the money.
My uncle was very concerned, I needed blood transfusions as I was anaemic, and it was imperative I had the seventh operation. My uncle went and saw the doctor. He is a very proud man, my uncle, but he began to cry, pleaded with him to operate on me, and promised he would pay the money when he could. This doctor then paid for my operation and medicines. I was in hospital for eight months.
It ruins peoples’ looks. An Italian doctor, who comes every year to Bangladesh for a few days to do plastic surgery, looked at my eyes in the early stages, and there was nothing left of one eye. He treated me like his own daughter, because I had been good at sports. He operated on the eye, and they are saying that they will do work in the other one if this work is a success. He came for fourteen days to do this. I now have one eye which is cured, whereas the other has a screen in front of it.
I have had to go to Bangladesh for some my operations, and there are still a few to do on my eyes, lips and nose. There are only two plastic surgeons in Dhaka. But they couldn’t do any more for me.
New crime — same response: blame the victim
Linda: Has acid throwing always happened?
Bina: There were not that many cases previously. I think it gained momentum in the mid 1990s. Acid is easily available these days. Whatever you say, whatever you do, they throw acid at you! From 1995 onwards about 12 acid cases take place every month.
Linda: What about the other women this happens to, what happens to them?
Bina: The girls who were in the hospital when I was there used to marvel at my ability to talk to everyone despite the sufferings I had been through. At the same time I think they thought I was a bit bold, but I told them life has to go on! The doctors gave me three years to live, two of the three years are now gone. If I survive three years — fine! If I don’t — well I shall die! The girls see me working with Naripokkho, and they are inspired by this.
In the beginning they do not want to go home, because of the way they look. They stay at home and never go out. Some parents, who have three or four other children, cannot afford to feed or clothe the girl. They worry about how to get them married off. Then slowly they realise that these are also their daughters and they begin to accept it.
From my experience friends of a woman who has had an acid attacks do not want to know her anymore, let alone her neighbours! Neighbours make all kinds of snide remarks, like the woman herself wasn’t very nice, and that was why acid was thrown at her. I have not been back to Bogurah where all my relatives live, I do not think they would give me any support at all. Perhaps they feel I am a girl of loose character, that is why they threw acid at me. I go to so many places, but to this day I have not been back to Bogurah. All the friends I have now are victims of acid attacks.
Linda: So the community blame the victim, is any action taken against the men?
Bina: Oh yes they blame the women. Men who are decent to try to object to the whole thing- but they don’t get very far. They have children of their own and they are scared they will get kidnapped, they don’t want to risk their own daughters because someone else’s daughter was attacked with acid.
Activism makes a difference
Linda: Tell me about Naripokkho, how did it start and how did you get involved?
Bina: Acid attacks are one part of Naripokkho’s work, it has other women’s projects on violence, maternity issues and other things.
The newspapers wrote about my case on the day after it happened, Naripokkho read it and came to visit me in hospital. They boosted my spirits, we tried to inspire each other, and that’s how I got involved. They gave me hope, told me I needed to get better for my athletics, but that I would have to work hard to get better. I asked if I could join them in their fight against acid, to inspire other girls. Often they contemplate suicide because of their looks, and I wanted to stop this and encourage them to work for Naripokkho like me.
I started work when I left the hospital. I had seen an American doctor who had said my eye was alright but needed to be operated on, but nobody dared do the operation. It was after this that I began work, but from time to time I get very worried about my eye, because without this operation it will be impossible to save it.
I work in the office on the days that I don’t go out, photocopying, faxing, typing — I have learnt how to type, but I cannot type for long because it makes my eyes water. I am going to learn to use the computer next.
I take newspaper cuttings on violence or acid attacks, file them, write to the women. I also go visiting to the hospital once a week. Sometimes the newspapers do not publish some acid cases. And some girls are frightened to talk of their experiences because they are scared of the men. I visit these girls and they talk to me. I then contact the journalists about the attacks and they are published.
We also organise events for pregnant women who keep losing their babies soon after they are born. We go there and light little lamps for them. I also take part in women’s marches — we march with torches, on March 8th, about rape of girls by young boys and the police. We have also gone on marches about acid throwing, and to demand capital punishment to those who throw acid. We campaign on lots of different issues. I also speak at lots of meetings, there are so many pictures of me on marches, speaking at mikes, loads and loads of pictures! When I speak women look at me and realise what pain I have been through. I say to the men, if there are any decent men in the audience, that they should think of me as their sister. I tell them, plead with them that this should not happen if a girl refuses to accept their love or a proposal of marriage, they should not deprive a girl of her parents or her community.
We organise workshops for girls who will not leave their homes. We do not have a lot of money, and it costs a lot to organise a workshop. We have done two so far. First they talk about themselves and explain their own histories, sometimes their families are there as well. The families talk too, because everyone is traumatised. They go to different places in group without covering their faces. Some have gone back to studying after the workshop, and some are taking exams now. We can usually find some sponsorship for education.
Linda: Do the women keep in touch with each other?
Bina: We keep in touch with them through letters after they go home from the hospital. They all want to get together again, but they live quite a long way away, fifty and hundred miles from Dhaka. We cannot afford to pay for their travel, accommodation, food etc. That is why we have not had a workshop for a few months now. We will organise another one when we have the money.
Linda: And what about the men, are any of them prosecuted?
Bina: One of the main parts of Naripokkho’s work is to help with the legal case. We give all the help we can, but not many men are prosecuted — about four have been caught and are now in prison, a few are awaiting bail. Some people who live in the villages bribe the police, the father and brothers of the attackers stand bail for the yong men. Two people from Naripokkho including a lawyer go and see the head police officer and tell him that there is a bail application, and the village police are contacted and told to refuse bail. We go to court with women.
Paying for hospital fees is still a big issue. It costs a huge amount to bring doctors from abroad to do plastic surgery. A doctor from India came, and we organised a big function. He agreed to operate on the serious cases — including myself — in Bombay. Nothing has happened since. The Law Minister came and promised that acid burn cases would be treated free of charge, but there again nothing has happened. People make empty promises. Lots of people agree to give us money, but that is where it ends, they never pay up! Someone saw my story in a newspaper and offered to pay for my treatment, but only if it was in Bangladesh. But there isn’t anyone there who can treat me
We take them to lots of places, like the theatre, to cheer them up. We organised a big show in which all the girls who have suffered acid attacks took part. Some sang, some acted in a play, I sang. It was a very nice show. We try lots of ways to lessen the pain the acid burn girls suffer. They have to deal with effects of the attacks — how to keep themselves fed, how to deal with the legal case, their whole life changes. I have accepted the situation, not everybody can. It is just not possible!
Naripokkho (Taken from the organisation’s leaflet ‘Combatting Acid Violence’)
The group was founded in 1983 to advance women’s rights and resist violence against women. It is primarily a voluntary organisation, and currently its main areas of work are: violence against women and human rights, reproductive rights and women’s health, gender issues in environment and development, representation of women in media and cultural politics.
Acid violence was taken up as an issue in 1995. The first recorded acid attack took place in the early 1960s. Currently one attack is reported every three days. The increase is due to the increased availability of acid, and the willingness of young men to use it for vengeful acts, when they have been ‘rejected’. It is women and girls’ faces which are targeted. Attacks usually take place at night when the victim is asleep, and children who are sleeping next to the victim also suffer acid burns.
Naripokkho has two aims — to support survivors of acid attacks and to seek justice through working on the police case. The first workshop for survivors was held in April 1997
Bina Akhtar… motivated all the girls to take off their veils, which concealed the scars and to share their stories. She was determined that the workshop should not only be for grieving but an occasion for joyous celebration because they were all alive and life was still worth living.
These are the problems the girls identified: lack of proper medical care for severe burns, cost of health care, lack of proper care for eyes, the victim and her family being threatened by the perpetrators and their family if a police case is filed, negligent police investigations, bribery of the police, harassment of the family, being in public with a disfigurement, feeling unable to go back to old lifestyle/school, not being safe at home because of harassment, economic losses because of health care and legal costs
Survivors are encouraged to write their own stories which are then published. Naripokkho’s work with acid survivors is on the empowerment of the survivors so that they continue with their lives with renewed vigour and become active in the movement against violence against women.