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A Beauty Shop That Goes Way Beyond Skin Deep

In Pakistan, a salon employs the victims of acid attacks to help them re-enter society on their own terms

Photo by Adrian Fisk

Beauty salons, in any part of the world, are not only sites of commerce—they’re also spaces of sisterhood. They provide women with intimate settings for socialization and bonding. In smaller towns and neighborhoods, the beauty salon may double as the proverbial watering hole: here, local gossip and news are exchanged as often as beauty tips. And in certain geographical contexts, the local salon can outstrip its original role as a medium for feminine beauty’s commercial ideals, even becoming a place where definitions of beauty are completely reworked.

In Pakistan, Musarat Misbah’s beauty salons employ survivors of acid attacks, women who have been permanently disfigured by corrosive chemicals thrown in their faces. This form of gendered violence is a manifestation of moral codes that impose sexist standards for behavior and modesty on women. The attackers are often people they know: husbands, fathers, brothers, and even mothers and mothers-in-law. It’s a practice that happens all over the world—last year, there were 21 documented cases in the U.K. alone—but in Pakistan and India, due to a weak judicial system, poorly enforced laws, and the cheap availability of acid, these attacks are particularly prevalent. Adrian Fisk photographed survivors of acid attacks and documented their stories in 2009, when he was based in South Asia as a photojournalist.

“You walk the alleyways of Lahore, or wherever, in Pakistan and you see, on occasion, women whose faces are terribly scared,” says Fisk.

Fisk visited Misbah’s salon, where he met Saira Liaqat. Liaqat’s husband attacked her after she refused to move out of her parents’ home while she was still attending school. Misbah’s salons began employing acid attack survivors like Liaqat 10 years ago, when they began a partnership with the Italian charity organization Smile Again. Working at the salon not only gives the women an opportunity to make their own living, but also helps pay for their medical treatment and rehabilitation. It’s not unusual for family or friends to shun survivors of acid attacks, as the scars bear reminders of the women’s supposed transgressions, and according to Fisk, many cannot or do not pursue action against the perpetrators.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The act of destroying a woman’s face is not just about causing her physical pain—it’s about alienating her from society.[/quote]

“You have a male-driven society that is in control of so much, including the judiciary and the police. So very few of the perpetrators are brought to justice,” he says.

In a world where definitions of beauty and feminine worth remain steeped in chauvinism and superficial ideals, the act of destroying a woman’s face is not just about causing her physical pain—it’s about alienating her from society. Many acid attack survivors fear leaving the house with their faces uncovered. The beauty salons provide these women with an avenue to reenter society on their own terms. As acid attack survivors become more visible in everyday life, the public is forced to acknowledge their existence and the pain they’ve endured. Their visibility in the public eye is one of the first steps to enacting societal and institutional changes that could prevent further attacks.

Earlier this year, three acid attack survivors made news when they featured in a series of photos modeling clothes designed by a woman named Rupa, also an acid attack survivor. The images were not just advertisements; they were declarations of beauty. In attacking women’s faces, their assailants meant to destroy their lives and their relationships to society. But by projecting their faces to the world, survivors not only defy societal standards of beauty, but defy their attackers as well.

“Every acid attack survivor says they do not want to meet the attackers,” said Ritu, one of the models, to CNN. “But I want to meet the guy (who did this to me) and ask: ‘was it worth it?’”

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