Stolen Faces; The Heinous Crimes of Acid Attacks

January 24, 2021
By: Alexandra Kinias

Vitriolage or vitriol attack is the act of throwing sulfuric acid or other corrosive substances on women’s faces and bodies to disfigure them with the purpose to end their chances of every getting married, and thus destroy the victims’ future.  I knew of this horrendous practice, but like many, I didn’t know the term for it. I wasn’t even aware that it was practiced in places other than Egypt, where it was never given a label, but a description. “He threw ‘fire water’ in her face,” was how people described these crimes, always committed by a man against a woman. Fire water is the term colloquially used in Egypt for sulfuric or hydrochloric acid, for it’s the water that burns. Hence the term acid attacks was born.

When I was growing up, acid attacks, as they became known, were isolated incidents described, in small print in the crime section of newspapers, as acts of vengeance. In 1998, I, among many Egyptians was shocked to read about the driver of a wealthy businessman who was arrested, carrying a bottle of acid, in front of the house of Egyptian celebrity Elham Shaheen, his employer’s ex-wife. The driver roamed the street for hours and raised the suspicions of Shaheen’s security guards who called the police. He confessed that he was waiting for Shaheen to show up to attack her with the chemical he hid in a small bottle under his jacket, as ordered by his employer, in retaliation to disputes over their divorce case. The news made headlines, of course, and the celebrity’s fame shed the light on these crimes that were still alive, but ignored. 

With my meager knowledge that this crime was still practiced in Egypt, I was also oblivious of its wide spread in South East Asia, or that this horrific crime was becoming a common act of terrorism against women worldwide. Women are attacked in South East Asia, from Afghanistan to Cambodia, from Briton and North America and lands in between. The attacks are mostly carried out by husbands, boyfriends and rejected suitors. Recently, the crime has mutated in the hands of terrorists to become a weapon used by religious fanatics to threat and control people. In Afghanistan incidents of acid attacks are continuously carried by the Taliban on girls and female teachers on their way to schools to dare them from seeking education. [1] 

In Balochistan province in Pakistan, Vitriolage is used to force women to stay home. A statement issued in May 2010, by the Baloch Ghaeratmand Group (The Honorable Baloch Group) said, “Acid will be thrown on the faces and girls and women who step out of their houses without covering their faces.” [2] The fundamentalist group has carried out its threat since then, and several acid attacks incidents have been reported in the province involving men on motorcycles throwing acid on women and then fleeing. [3] In Quetta, Pakistan, women are also attacked when walking the streets with their faces uncovered or frequenting the markets unaccompanied by a male relative. [4][5]

It’s not just the brutality of the acid attacks, the images of the maimed and disfigured faces and bodies or the agonizing testimonials of women who survived these heinous crimes that is haunting, but also the incompetence of the governments to protect women and the negligence to bring criminals to justice had added more horror to my nightmares. Outside the western world, men who commit such crimes are rarely brought to justice; often they are even operating for the government. 

In October 2014, the Iranian city of Isfahan witnessed a series of acid attacks on women, by men reported to be driving around on motorcycles throwing the acid into the face of women walking or driving their cars. Eyewitnesses have reported that the assailants proclaimed they were defending hijab during the assaults. [6] As many as 25 women have been targeted by these attacks which have left one dead and many suffering from severe burns to their hands and faces. [7] 

The incidents happened few days after the Iranian Parliament agreed to vote on the Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent vice, [8] a bill that was first introduced in June 2014. The plan assigns the Basij, the voluntary militias of Iran’s revolutionary guards, to enforce the strict dress code on Iranian women. [9] Many saw the attacks as a result of this plan and liberals have accused the government officials and high level clerics in orchestrating it, which the government strongly denies. [10] President Rouhani strongly condemned the attacks which ignited protests in Isfihan and Tehran. The acid attacks by men on motorcycles halted in Isfahan, but no arrests were made. [11]

In most third world countries, underprivileged young women drowning in poverty view marriage as a refuge for improving their living conditions. For many, their faces and bodies are their treasured and often single asset that guarantees them a husband and a better life. And for this reason, their faces become the target of these crimes. By disfiguring their physical attractiveness, acid throwers rob them a decent future and destine them to a life of misery and shame, for the simple reason of not yielding to their threats or demands. In such cultures, only the message of fear and submission resonate in the minds of the young girls as they witness women being maimed for believing they can express their voice, stand up for their rights to go to school or end a marriage they most likely were forced into in the first place. For these women, free choice comes with a high price. 

Vitriolage is not a crime exclusively committed in third world countries or by immigrants of these lands to the west.  The horrific incident that maimed the former British model and TV presenter Katie Piper took place in London, England.  Daniel Lynch, her ex- boyfriend, and after ending a turbulent two weeks’ relation, assigned another man to throw a cup of acid in her face as she walked out of her apartment building, in day broad light. Piper was left in the street suffering from her burns. Both men were arrested and are serving life sentence. However, the emotional and physical scars will live with Piper forever. After 30 reconstruction surgeries, blinded in one eye and severely disfigured, she is speaking to the public about her experience and allowing her photos to be published. [12]

Sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, the weapons mostly used to carry out these cruel crimes, are sold in the streets without government control, as cheap as few cents a liter. Once thrown into the face of the victims, some as young as fifteen years old, it burns the skin, melts the bones, blinds if sprayed in the eyes and condemns the victim to a lifetime of trauma and misery.  Most of these attacks go unreported in fear of further retaliation. In many countries, the bribery and corruption of police officers and judges guarantee the freedom of the attackers. Only a handful of the few cases that are reported come to a closure and the criminals are brought to justice, probably to satisfy the organizations that are fighting for the cause. 

A Report by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School states that among India, Bangladesh and Cambodia where these crimes are widespread, “Bangladesh is the only country that ‘has enacted specific legislation to enhance penalties on perpetrators of acid attacks and to regulate acid sales and distribution. Since enacting this legislation in 2002 together with criminal legislation, the number of reported acid attacks in Bangladesh has steadily decreased by 15% to 20% each year. The government and civil society also undertook large-scale public awareness campaigns when these laws were enacted. The decreasing trends in Bangladesh are in contrast to increasing trends in Cambodia and India where no such laws exist.” [13]

In Egypt, according to Tadween, there is no official data on the number of acid attack victims issued by the government or any non-governmental organization. Acid attack crimes are not identified under any specific articles/coded. The current penalty for acid attack perpetuators varies from 3 years minimum to 10 years maximum.

Because women in these societies are considered cheap commodities with no rights, victims of the attacks endure the pain and shame of these crimes alone, often ostracized from their community and families. Some women went through as many as twenty-five reconstructive surgeries, yet after this long painful journey, they never attained their looks again, and never will. The psychological challenge of coping with their new images is grave.

In these male dominant societies, governments turn a blind eye on the atrocities women are subjected to. Since most of these women live under poverty levels, the expenses of the surgeries and counseling are paid by NGOs and charitable organizations that are carrying the burden to supply moral, medical and financial support to the victims. They are also giving a voice to these women by publicizing the magnitude of the crimes for the world to take note, in an effort to put international pressure on the governments to react.  It is quite unfortunate to say that unless the systems that are harboring these criminals change and the governments take responsibility to fight them, this act of terror against women will continue. And more faces will be maimed and more lives will be destroyed.  

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