Islam’s new Kartinis – March: Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chair, Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan

Dear readers,

Welcome to the “Islam’s new Kartinis” series! As explained in my last post, this column – originally published at MarcGopin.com – will focus on Muslim women from around the world who work to bring positive incremental change to their communities and beyond. This month, we’re featuring Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.

Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence
Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence

 Raquel: Have you always been interested in human rights work?

Valerie:  I grew up in a family where the ideas of freedom, thoughtfulness and fighting for what you believe is right were very much present. My great-grandparents resisted against the Germans in the First World War. My great-grandfather even received the Legion D’Honneur for excellent military conduct. This is the highest distinction for a French soldier. My grandfather, at age 19, joined the clandestine French forces to fight the Nazis during the Second World War.  His legacy is a gift to me – a reminder of the absolute necessity of fighting for human rights and enlightened values in the face of tyranny.

Since my youth, I not only understood but felt that we all had a role to play in producing a better society. A few of the first books that I remember as a child – given to me by my mother – were books about the religions of the world, a cartoon book about French history with the declaration of human rights as a preamble, and a book explaining the miracle of human reproduction.  I was also taught the value of human rights through enlightened French philosophers of the 18th century like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  I think I gained a deep respect for human beings through all of these readings.

Later, when I joined a Catholic private school at the age of 12, I discovered the simple happiness of providing help and support. I started my “social work” as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.

Raquel:  What brought you to work with acid attack survivors in particular? 

Valerie:  I was blessed with a passionate but occasionally very difficult life. I have never forgotten those who have been there to support me through life’s challenges. I also remember the rare moments when I was not as well supported.  Those difficult times further motivated me to always be a support for others.

I believe in the cycle and process of learning. I believe our experiences are meant to teach us how to move forward and be better to one another.  Often, society tries to dehumanize us – to make us forget the humanity of others and also abandon it in ourselves. We have to re-learn humanity: how to really see people, really listen to their problems. I think this dehumanization is one of the greatest ills we are facing.

One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was with acid survivors.  I was living in Lahore, and was a customer at a beauty parlor. At the parlor was a woman with tissue expanders (an expander is a way of developing fresh skin to be used for skin grafting. A silicone balloon is placed under the skin, which is expanded over time. As the balloon grows, the surrounding skin stretches and grows. Later, the expander is removed and the excess new skin is used for grafting.)  My seven year old son was with me, and asked: “Mummy, what happened to the lady?” I had no answer. I thought maybe she had cancer, that she had a tumor.

A few days later, I went to see the owner of the salon and asked her about the women there. This is how I learned about acid violence in Pakistan.  The owner had an NGO and said she was working to get treatment for these patients.
Subsequently, the owner contacted me and offered me the position of coordinator for her NGO. I initially told her that this was not my area of expertise. I was an educator and volunteer, but I had no experience in managing developing organizations.

She insisted.  I told her that I would think about it. For a week I had nightmares.  I realized that maybe this was my call to action. Leaving my previous job and starting to work with acid attack survivors was the biggest decision I’d ever made.

Unfortunately, three months later, I discovered that the funds for this organization were being used in a suspicious manner, and I suspected that funds were being embezzled.  I quit.

In the meantime, we were visited by Acid Survivors Trust International.  They told me that if I really wanted to help acid survivors, I should not give up. They trusted me – and advised me to create a board and register our new NGO – Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan. They had the funds and were willing to help get the initiative off the ground. 
It took my husband and me one month to decide to start this new organization.  We started it in Islamabad with a dedicated group of activists. I will never regret that decision – not when I see women transformed and living happily again. Not when I think about how much I’ve learned, and how much this hast taught me about humility.

Raquel:  Is there a common thread you’re noticing in the cases you’re seeing? 

Valerie: Yes. The commonalities include violence sourced in poverty, lack of education and feudal /tribal cultural systems.

Raquel:  What does the ASF do, and how do you reach victims of acid violence? (For example, is there a networking relationship with hospitals or communities to contact you?)

Valerie: ASF provides comprehensive rehabilitation services to acid survivors, such as medical services, psychological and social counseling, and socio-economic assistance. We also provide legal aid. These services are provided by staff and volunteers as well as pro-bono doctors, specialists and lawyers.

To reach survivors, we have developed a notification and referral system. Our field officer and volunteers are linked to journalists, social workers, hospitals, police stations, government institutions, shelters and other NGOs.  When a case has occurred, or an incident has been identified as an acid attack, the appropriate individuals and entities are notified so that the victim can begin receiving services immediately in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.

ASF also advocates for a new legal framework to be established in order to monitor and regulate the sale of acid and to punish perpetrators of acid attacks. We also seek assistance in securing rehabilitation services for survivors.

Valerie and her husband, Mohammad
Valerie and her husband, Mohammad

Raquel:  Can you tell me more about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved, and how do they add to the movement?

Valerie: Men have been present in our fight against acid attacks from day one.

To begin with, my husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO – without bribes or illegitimate practices others have used. We have male directors, male doctors and pro-bono lawyers, and a male field officer.

Salim Mahmood Salim was the secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Development at the time of our founding.  All of these men help to provide and identify support, mobilize media, assist with fundraising events (such as coordinating a fund-raising rock concert at no cost to our organization), and more. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court  officially condemned acid violence and asked the Pakistani parliament to act on it from a legislative perspective.

With men on board, supporting you at the highest level, you are better able to reach communities that follow patriarchal traditions. They do not feel threatened. Rather, they are more likely to join you in creating constructive, sustainable changes. When men reach out to other men, they feel proud rather than emasculated. If other men are active, they actually see involvement as their duty. When men support women, our empowerment will arise – naturally and peacefully.

Finally, it is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries, has a male-dominated power structure.  Engaging men on this issue ensures that we have a constructive, realistic strategy and approach to change. I also must mention that having men on board is valuable from a safety perspective.

Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center
(Above: Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center)

Raquel:  There is no denying that stories of acid violence are deeply troubling and the attacks themselves devastating. From what sources do you, personally, derive your hope? How does the organization as a whole maintain a forward-thinking, positive approach in this very difficult work?

Valerie: Raquel, I am a fighter. Ask anyone – that is the first adjective they’d use to describe me. I simply do not give up. At the same time, I am patient.

I believe that if you are fighting for a good cause, God does not let you down.  One must concentrate on the achievements – and use that as fuel to tackle all obstacles.

As the chairperson of the organization, it is my job and responsibility to generate positive energy. I need to be able to listen when people are down – and to motivate and mobilize them. When my colleagues need a break, they get one. Direct work with our psychotherapist is not just important for the survivors, but also for us. Clinical supervision and regular check-ins guarantee that none of us suffers from burnout.

We are dedicated to a collaborative approach, and positive feedback and team-building are very much part of our management strategy. We promote and salute both effort and results .  One person’s victory or success is a team victory. We are very much like a family, and we recognize the individual efforts of each family member. We are also all activists – and that spirit drives us.

Beyond our organizational approach, we have other reasons to remain hopeful. Every day, we see survivors getting better  – physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re rebuilding they’re lives. They’re happy and proud of their achievements. Nazeraan, for example, is blind and disfigured. She is fighting for custody of her two daughters. While she naturally feels sorrow and shares that with us, she is working at learning Braille and sewing. She wants to make a new life for herself and to become a role model.

Nazeraan shows the world that acid may burn you – but it cannot burn you entirely. Your spirit and your will still make you exist as a woman. When the survivors themselves are so full of hope, how can we not follow their example?

Raquel:  What are the greatest challenges facing the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation? The economy presents obvious obstacles. But are there especially pressing social, political or other barriers?

Valerie: The greatest barrier to our work is not just obtaining funding for lifesaving and reconstructive surgeries, but also for the rehabilitation center. Pakistani philanthropists have had to face a great deal of corruption from other NGOs, and are not sure who they should support. Additionally, the Pakistani government has other financial priorities – from the situation in Kashmir to terrorism and internally displaced persons.

Generally speaking, political instability and frequent changes in the government make collaboration with officials a bit difficult, since it is hard to get real commitments from them. High rates of illiteracy makes interaction with affected communities even more challenging.  Also, our survivors are from around the country. This geographical spread often makes it difficult for us to reach them.

Feudalism and tribalism remain a challenge, as they does not encourage development or interaction with outsiders. The more feudal or tribal an area is, the less welcoming they are likely to be of an organization like ours. Some families even refuse to have their female relatives treated for free. They fear what society might think when they see females “going away.” 

Raquel:  What would you consider to be some of the greatest victories achieved by the ASF?

Valerie: The case of Naila Farhat was important for us. For the first time, the highest jurisdiction in Pakistan heard the case of an acid attack; and justice was achieved.  This has given way to our lobbying work, which has already been cause for hope. The chief justice supports and praises our work, and has demanded that the Parliament establish a legal framework for acid sale regulation. He also supports the punishment of perpetrators and rehabilitation efforts for survivors.

Raquel:  What can be done to support the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation?

Valerie: We need awareness to be raised at an international level, both about acid violence – and about our rehabilitation center.  The center, which is still developing, is essential for survivors to rebuild their bodies and their lives. We need to increase our ability to both treat survivors and to investigate their cases. To do this, we need more sophisticated medical and forensic equipment, as well as more comprehensive systems to monitor funding and development of the Foundation.

ASF will lobby for legislative changes before the Pakistani national assembly, and continue to do its work locally, nationally and internationally. Financial and other support – like awareness-raising efforts – are key to our success.

To learn more about the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here.

To make a donation, please click here. When you open the donation window, please be sure to choose “D-ASF Pakistan” in the drop-down  menu under “additional details.” Please note: you will be able to specify your country and donate in the appropriate currency. There is a special link for donations from Canada. 

Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance
(Above: Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance)
(Photos courtesy Valerie Khan Yusufzai / ASF-P. )
*******************************************************
Advertisements

Things you need to know

* Police in Kandahar have arrested 10 men connected to the acid attacks of November 12th. President Hamid Karzai has called for the public execution of the attackers.

* Imam Samudra, Amroza Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron – the “Bali bombers” – were executed on November 8th. The executions had been put off for some time due to security concerns in Indonesia. Jemaah Islamiyah’s steady rise in influence, which includes the ability to mobilize university-age students for disruptive demonstrations – means that an execution like this could trigger a backlash of Islamist violence. 

Thankfully, the security situation on the ground has remained stable. Increased police presence has helped, to be sure – but so has the fact that Indonesians themselves have no sympathy for terrorists – and no appreciation for the lack of remorse demonstrated by the Bali bombers.

More about the situation in Indonesia soon – including commentary on a controversial (and I think absolutely frightening) proposed measure to track HIV/AIDS patients with microchip technology.

Afghanistan: female students attacked with acid in Kandahar

AP Photo / CNN
AP Photo / CNN

 “Kandahar is not safe. But we can’t stay at home, we want an education.” -Atifa, 16, acid attack victim – Kandahar, Afghanistan

Kandahar: this morning, two men sprayed a group of female students with acid – blinding at least two of them. It is unclear how many of the students were injured. Government spokesman Parwaz Ayoubi called the attackers “enemies of education”, suggesting that the insurgents who attacked the pupils were objecting to the education of females.

According to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the incident, Latefeh – one of the injured students – says that this attack will not prevent her from pursuing her education or stop her from learning. The Afghan government reinforces their commitment to education, saying that attacks like these, by “unIslamic enemies of the country” will not prevent six million children from attending school.

Unfortunately, though, schoolrooms today were largely empty. Parents have held their children home for fear that they may be attacked – and children are afraid for their safety.

See BBC coverage here. (Also, Spanish speakers: check out coverage of this very blog entry here.)

To help:

* Learn about and support the work of Barakat.

* Check out some of the positive work being done by female educators and UNICEF.

* RAWA was founded by Afghan women for Afghan women. Educate yourself about their efforts here.

* Afghan-Network has a list of NGOs needing your help to support their work in Afghanistan, including Islamic Relief. Please click here to see this list and offer your support.

* Acid attacks are a pervasive problem. Learn about how women in Pakistan are fighting acid attacks, keeping their faith, and restoring hope.

* These attacks also happen in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Colombia, the UK and the United States. Here is more coverage and some tips on what you can do to help.

Pakistan: acid attack victims find beauty – in themselves

**Update: May 6, 2010**
Dear readers,
It has been brought to my attention that the Depilex Smileagain Foundation and its founder, Massarat Misbah, are being investigated for misuse of funds and other charges.
I have been in communication with activists on the ground in Pakistan for many months and am very alarmed by the information I’ve received. Please see a statement from the Italian sponsors of Depilex here.
In any event, and whatever the ultimate verdict is in this case, the stories of acid attack survivors, and the dangers against women and men in Pakistan are very real. I have left the below posting up because women like Irum Saeed and Urooj Akbar must be heard and must be helped.
To learn more about how to help survivors of acid violence, please see this post – where I introduce you to an organization I’ve worked with personally. I encourage you to support their efforts.
*******************************************************
MSNBC)
Irum Saeed, survivor of an acid attack (photo: MSNBC)

My post on acid attacks in Pakistan was viewed 4,000 times in less than 24 hours. No post of mine has ever gotten that much traffic so quickly. The post quickly skyrocketed to seven thousand and counting. While reactions have been mixed, many of you are taking action. Thank you.

Emails have continued to come in, asking about the welfare of Pakistan’s women. While so many accounts are bleak, I was referred to a story last night that I need to share with you.

Meet Saira Liaqat and Urooj Akbar, who work at a Lahore beauty salon founded by Massarat Misbah. They are acid attack survivors who have found new promise after experiencing the unthinkable.

Massarat Misbah is not an acid attack survivor herself. However, five years ago, she encountered a woman whose face had been maimed in an attack by her husband. The woman needed assistance, and Misbah came to her aide. She also placed an ad in a local newspaper looking for other women who needed help. Misbah learned that several of the women who had been maimed had wanted to work in beauty salons like her own.

Since then, Misbah has founded the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, which employs acid attack survivors to work in beauty salons. She has arranged for ten women take beauty courses in Italy last year. The Foundation also raises money to help women find refuge and obtain medical care.

“I’m independent now, I stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I have a job, I work, I earn. In fact, I’m living on my own … which isn’t an easy thing for a woman to do in Pakistan, for a lone woman to survive.”

– Urooj Akbar

Regular clients of these women are inspired by their resilience, and they also say that they’re more aware of the trials faced by women in their society.

Read the rest of their story here, and learn more about the Depilex Smileagain Foundation here.

***

PS: I know I owe you some Jumu’ah Dispatches! I’ll get on it as soon as I can. I also received a comment from a reader asking me some really interesting questions about human rights, liberalism, and more. Rather than answer it buried in a comments section of another post, I’ll dedicate an entry to my answer when I’ve got more time on my hands.

Muslim women don’t need your approval, but you can make yourself useful in our cause

What do you have against sheperds?
What do you have against sheperds?

Time to confess something to you: I’m more than a little disturbed by some of the responses to my post on the Pakistani Taliban’s threats to maim women with acid.

Talk about missing the point! I’ve received emails from seething white supremacists who want to annihilate all Muslims, angry feminists demanding that I remove my headscarf (funny, shouldn’t feminists be fighting for choice?! As a feminist, I fight for theirs!), not to mention verbose comments about “sheparding cultures breeding terrorists” – (wait, wasn’t Jesus “the good sheperd”?), etc etc etc. I even got a message from someone who felt the need to let me know how hideous he thinks I am. Thanks for the pointers, buddy. Now stop looking through my album before you get sick.

I’ll tell you right now – my gut reaction is not just shock at how people can completely overlook the point of something like this – not to mention how anyone can feel absolutely no mercy when it comes to the suffering of others. I’m also choking down a desire to tell individuals to quit wasting our collective time, save their herding commentaries and hit-lists for their own diaries and get back to us when they’ve decided how to help the world in a constructive way. A good many of us have work to do – take your hate and get out of our way. (And a tip for the would-be lynchers: your emails are traceable. D’OH!)

At the same time, I encourage open dialogue. So, other than some downright undigestable hate language, I let most comments go up over the weekend. I’m glad I did, because some positivity did come of it: I received notes from several of you looking for more ways to help Pakistan’s women. I also heard from contacts at the International Campaign Against Honour Killings that they experienced an increase in requests to join their mailing list. This is great news. I encourage more of you to support the work of the ICAHK. This is not a partisan issue. This is something all people of conscience must address.

Some contributors made excellent points:

* A writer from Malaysia reminded readers that Muslims are not the monolithic entity many would have us be;

* Several men decried violence against women, including one who wrote:

I, RJ as a man, personally condemn these horrible/terrible attacks on women for whatever purpose they have been done for, for whatever period of time these crimes will be carried out or have been carried out, whereever in this planet/realm they have been carried out, are being carried out or are being planned for the future. I respect the rights of women and their dignity not to conform to violent views of their sexual practices, morality ( including outlawing and punishing having sexual intercourse before marriage, having multiple partners and etc..), or other manufactured perceptions of their clothing, style and ethics. I personally use all my power and will to stop violence and lack of understanding that is used as a sword against women and their rights. And I from all of my hearts do call upon those in the know, those who lead the banks who support religious terrorism and extremism of whatever kind and also my very distant bloodline relatives, who like to think of themselves as in the minority to do something to stop this – since my example might not be enough. I was not picked by the Divine before I was even born to rule over others and to say to them what to do, but clearly I am not a peasant who will stand by the sidelines and watch one of the few pure sources of joy in my personal life be abused. Since harming women is harming me as a man.”

* Someone named Daoud brought a meaningful defense of Islam to the table – while also calling on Muslim leaders to take action. What do I mean? He didn’t just cite Qur’an and hadith, then stomp away indignantly. He also said:

“It is the role and responsibility of imams, shaykhs, scholars, and political and government figures to lead and give relevant advice to those they are responsible for for the time and situations we are living in. If they will not do this, then they are betrayers of their trust the consequences of which we see meted out to such as these poor women.

If people are genuinely concerned about these atrocities then they should be demanding that the appropriate authorities take appropriate action against the perpetrators – they often know which of the birarderi elders sanctioned these attacks. How about putting them in prison? How about putting the person who actually threw the acid in prison for a very long time? This would be quite acceptable under the Shariah, although the classical punishment would have been even more severe.

There is no tribalism in Islam (”la ‘asabiyyah fi-l Islam” ;) is a well-known hadith. “The best of you are the best of you to your womenfolk…” (akhyarukum akhyarukum li nisa’ikum… ;) is another.

* When confronted with hate, a Muslim woman wrote:

“Well, here’s the thing: there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. If we were all terrorists, the world would have imploded years ago. The truth is that the majority of us are kind, normal people. The radicals, like the Taliban, Hamas, Al-Qaida etc etc are the ones doing all of the speaking through their actions.

I have said for a long time that it is time for moderate, peaceful believers in Islam to *speak up for ourselves* and say NOT in the name of Allah, of OUR God do you do these heinous things.”

Music to my ears.

* The post has been picked up by Impunity Watch. See their mention of it here, in an article by Managing Editor Lindsey Brady. The mission of Impunity Watch – housed at Syracuse University College of Law – is to “monitor and address horrific human rights abuses.”

* Someone else provided this link, to Pakistan’s Acid Survivor’s Foundation. They help survivors and work to end acid attacks. Their site also contains a list of actual ways you can help. Now that’s a useful contribution to the conversation. 

Finally, I received an email containing the story of Imrana, a survivor of sexual assault in India. When local authorities failed to produce a humane verdict in her case, Imrana, a Muslim, took her story elsewhere. Women’s groups mobilized to assist in her cause, and she’s inspired the formation of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. Spread over 13 states in India, with over 2,000 members, these women don’t need the approval of clerics (or racist wingnuts on the internet) to go after their God-given rights. They know that Islam gives them these freedoms. You go, sisters.

****

 “The most perfect man of religion is he who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.”

The Prophet Muhammad, as narrated by Al-Tirmidhi

Pakistani Taliban: wear hijab, or be disfigured

Good news: Congratulations to The Hijab Blog and Hijab Style on their feature story in the Toronto Star. I’m excited about the additional coverage being given to women who are pushing the envelope. In challenging expectations about Muslim women, they’re not only educating the West – but also empowering Muslim women worldwide.

Think their work is all superficial? You’d be wrong. Many women – including a hefty number of Western feminists – refuse to openly condemn human rights abuses that have some sort of “cultural” underpinning. Even if the excuse of culture is obviously rubbish. Many of them don’t have the guts. Imaan of The Hijab Blog does. She is “infuriated” about what I’m about to share with you – and I am too. 

Very, very bad news: Yesterday, the Pakistani unit of the Taliban announced not only that it demands “unislamic” businesses to close (CD shops, cable service providers and internet cafes) – they also warned women that they have 15 days to start wearing hijab – or have their faces maimed with acid. These guys claim to be out to destroy the “traitors of Allah” – while they go against every Qur’anic command to respect human rights.

Disfiguring women’s faces with acid has a long, scary history. See this story about women being burned in Kashmir, this account of acid burning in Pakistan, not to mention Bangladesh, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, the UK, Turkey, Colombia, Thailand, and the United States.

In some cases, like this one in London, acid is used to destroy DNA evidence after a woman has already been brutalized by rape.

While acid attacks do happen most frequently in Muslim-majority countries, this crisis doesn’t plague Muslims alone. It is vitally important to understand just how widespread these kinds of attacks are.

These acts can do much more than maim someone’s physical appearance. Blindness, loss of speech and even death can result. Many, after losing significant amounts of skin, are unable to survive the infections that ravage their bodies after an acid attack.

UNICEF once reported a story about a baby girl whose father poured acid into her mouth because she was not the boy he wanted his wife to bring into the world. She grew up unable to speak or hear.

Receiving the threat of an acid attack is alarming – but to see the pervasiveness of this horror is petrifying.

Now, an acid-maiming campaign is being launched – openly – against Pakistani women. Unlike when communities have been taken by surprise, the Pakistani Taliban has stated their gruesome, disgusting mission publicly. We cannot claim shock this time around.

BBC)
Kamilat Mehdi, Ethiopia (photo: BBC)

What can you do?

* Get involved with groups like the International Campaign Against Honour Killings. Acid attacks are often used in instances where a woman is seen has having “dishonored” her family, community, or religion. The ICAHK works against this brutality.

* Learn more from Amnesty International, and join their campaign to protect women’s rights.

* Educate yourself and take action. Start by watching videos like this in their entirety, and learn about the organizations you can become involved with. An example is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which releases yearly reports on violence against women.

We cannot claim ignorance or justify inaction.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Asha, India (photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)