Remembering Fakhra Younus, five years after her tragic suicide.
Five years after acid attack victim Fakhra Younus committed suicide in Rome, Italy, women’s rights activist Tehmina Durrani assembled with members and supporters of the Tehmina Durrani Foundation (TDF) at Lahore’s Liberty Roundabout to pay tribute to the life and resilience of the 33-year-old.
Addressing the congregation—and the local TV channels covering the protest—Durrani took a hard stance against the atrocities committed against women in Pakistan. She urged attendees to wear black armbands and declared March 17 as ‘Fakhra Younus Day’ on social media. At sunset, the crowd lit candles in Fakhra’s memory while standing together in solidarity.
Younus was allegedly doused in acid by her husband, Bilal Mustafa Khar, in 2000 and underwent 39 surgeries in Rome over the course of 12 years before leaping to her death from the sixth-floor of a building. Khar vehemently denies any involvement in this incident and has since been acquitted of any wrongdoing.
The acid left Younus’ face, neck, chest and right arm extensively burnt, while blinding her in one eye. She spent three months in intensive care at hospital, after which she was sent home. There, Durrani took up her cause and arranged donations of half a million dollars from Amnesty International and other international corporations to have Younus relocated to Italy for further treatment. After the matter caught the attention of the international press, Younus and her five-year-old son Nouman were flown to Rome from where, over a decade later, a coffin wrapped in the Italian and Pakistani flags carried her body back to her homeland. After her death, Durrani wrote a letter to the Italian ambassador to Pakistan (reproduced below), thanking his country for the safe sanctuary it had accorded to Younus.
In a letter to philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi and Durrani, Nouman granted them in absentia permission to conduct the last rites of his mother. However, her last wish to be buried next to her mother could not be fulfilled. At the time Edhi claimed Younus’s siblings—along with 300 MQM party workers—forcefully took her coffin upon its arrival in Karachi. “We don’t even know where they buried her,” he said.
Younus’ story is not unique. Acid violence is a common mean of retaliation in South Asian communities. The first such attack recorded occurred in 1967 in Bangladesh and India. According to statistics by the Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan, there are on average 200 cases of acid attacks each year in Pakistan. This number, however, under-represents the true scope of acid violence as the media seldom reports all attacks—and many victims remain silent, fearing further violence.
Pakistan has taken steps to curb acid attacks; the country’s first anti-acid law was passed in 2011. Introduced by lawmakers Marvi Memom, Begum Shahnaz Sheikh and Anusha Rehman, the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2011 amended the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, adding Sections 336A and 336B. “The bill for the first time defined ‘acid’ as a ‘corrosive substance’ and made the definition of ‘hurt’ more comprehensive. Disfigurement and loss of limb now constituted under Hurt,” says Rehman. Under the revised law, the punishment for ‘hurt by corrosive substance’ has been increased to life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 14 years and a fine of one million rupees.
In her last interview, Younus hoped her plight would never be forgotten. “I want my case to be pursued. So that the powerful know what they do to others is torture. They need to know what we go through.” Durrani’s actions on behalf of Younus will ensure she—and those like her—will not be forgotten.
The complete text of the letter Tehmina Durrani wrote to the Italian ambassador to Pakistan Signor Vincennso Prati on April 15, 2012, is reproduced below:
His Excellency, Signor Vincennso Prati,
Italian Ambassador to Pakistan
Dear Signor Prati, As-Salam-Alaikum:
It is with profound gratitude that I send this letter to you and humbly request that you share my sentiments with the people of Italy, as well as her government. In a time where even the smallest gesture of human compassion is rare, how can we forget the enormous love and care your country lavished upon Fakhra Younus? By providing safe sanctuary to her, you made us all feel secure. For this, you have my heartfelt and eternal thanks.
Your magnanimous act gave the people of Pakistan a sense of hope that even beyond the borders of our own country we are loved for the sake of the most basic and simple of all qualities—humanity. By nurturing one relegated to the status of ‘lowest of the low’ by her own home country, your government and the Italian people have established that humanity without an agenda can still be a norm. There is unfortunately no way or means by which we, the people of Pakistan, would ever be able to reciprocate this kindness and generosity in any tangible manner. However, there is one way by which we can repay you: that our leadership takes a lesson from your government and adopts the humanitarian practices of Islam.
The fact that Fakhra Younus was shunned by her birth country—despite the thick ‘chader’ with which she attempted to conceal the heinous crime committed against her—is not a reflection on the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani people, who remain enmeshed in a constant struggle to survive. Sadly, this day-to-day struggle has had the consequent effect of thwarting the growth and sustenance of basic human compassion, and drowning most of our populace in hopeless apathy. As victims of a state steeped in corruption, their only school of learning has been the callous and arrogant examples set by the consecutive governments of Pakistan. It is no wonder that their capacity for compassion and empathy has diminished.
To erase this negative ‘learning’ from our collective memory, it is necessary to replace it with stronger and consistent comparison.
Fakhra Younus was by far the most seriously damaged victim of acid terrorism ever documented. When I placed photographs of her before the former military government’s Minister of Interior, I said that I expected nothing less from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan than what our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would have done were this girl to have been brought before him. Shockingly, despite the clear evidence of the gruesome attacks, the minister remained unmoved by Fakhra’s plight.
Refusing to recognize that a problem exists is reflective of a primitive state of mind. Unfortunately, this appears to be a problem that is endemic to the Pakistani state. Not only did the government refuse to acknowledge the hideous crime perpetrated against Fakhra Younus, it denied her and her son a right to a Pakistani identity! Fakhra was also denied security and justice, despite the fact that her very existence bore the strongest evidence of a criminal assault. She was provided ‘bandages’ and ‘eye-drops’ for life-threatening injuries.
She was denied even a derisory disability allowance, thereby forsaking her for dead even when she was alive. In fact, not only was Fakhra denied all the above, she also faced multiple impediments by the governmental when a hand of hope was extended to her by a foreign country.
When the wrath and ire of Fakhra Younus’s enemies—the alleged perpetrator of the crime, as well as the establishment—made it impossible for me to assist her alone, I turned to the people of Pakistan. The decision brought to light the peoples’ dormant force of power that unity alone can liberate… if recognized.
Once her plight and the stance of government was understood, they inundated the President’s Secretariat, hounded the Minister of Interior, and gave front-page coverage to the issue.
It was the power of the people that finally secured Fakhra Younus and Nouman their basic right of identity.
It is with humility that I request that my simple act of kindness be accepted as common practice, rather than a rarity. I do so only because from the above mentioned impact on people from all walks of life, I realized that one person taking genuine responsibility for another can affect genuine change by example.
That the Italian government took sole responsibility for a Muslim girl from a Muslim country is a great embarrassment for me as a Pakistani. Yet it neither embarrassed nor disturbed the Government of Pakistan. For them, the mutilated Fakhra Younus simply vanished from the face of the Earth. The government turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the crime. Pakistan did not want a reminder. In stark contrast, Italy did not seek applause.
Whereas Fakhra Younus died in the eyes of Pakistan, she was reborn in Italy.
In Italy, Fakhra underwent 39 major surgeries; her hospitalization and medication were made possible only because of the priority the Italian government placed on the ‘oneness’ of humanity. Ignoring geographical or religious boundaries, the Italian people extended themselves to provide Fakhra a home, domestic assistance, extensive counseling, and a teacher from whom she learned fluent Italian so that she could integrate and feel at home in your country. She was even paid a regular ‘salary,’ which I am told was equivalent to that of government employees between assignments.
The sad contrast between how the Italian government opened its arms to another and the sorry relationship between Pakistan and her citizens is made yet more evident in the shocking treatment of Fakhra at the Pakistan mission in Italy.
After 11 years of living on the sole hospitality of the Italian government, Fakhra was persuaded by us to demand her right to assistance from the embassy of her own country. She telephoned the ambassador, a woman, daily. Not one call was returned. We persuaded her to visit the embassy and make her presence felt—hers was not a presence that could be ignored by anyone possessing an iota of human compassion. And yet, at the Pakistani mission, she remained unacknowledged. For three whole days, the ambassador not only refused to meet Fakhra, the embassy staff whose job it is to assist and serve the Pakistani expat community, treated her with the most gross disrespect. Since her arrival in Italy, the Pakistan embassy was the ONLY place where Fakhra was humiliated. Each day, she returned home a little more heartbroken than the day before.
On her last visit to the embassy, having waited all day without even being acknowledged, Fakhra informed the staff at closing time that she would not leave without meeting the ambassador. Rather than ensure that the meeting take place, the staff was instead instructed to remove her from the premises by force! When she resisted, the Italian police were summoned to forcibly evict this Pakistani citizen from her own embassy! Although the embarrassed Italian police apologized profusely, the embassy of Pakistan showed no remorse.
While I considered this to be a national insult that must neither be ignored nor forgiven, Fakhra remained an unconditional patriot. She loved Pakistan more than most people I know, especially those who have gained immense wealth and fame from Pakistan, and of course, those who have milked her dry. Fakhra Younus loved Pakistan for free.
The consistency of your generosity for the last 12 years (and no doubt many more, had Fakhra survived) makes it obvious that the people of Italy have evolved to practicing compassion as a way of life. Like Jesus Christ’s (PBUH) loving response to those who suffered from leprosy, the people of Italy have exhibited a level of compassion rarely seen today. By drawing a comparison between your country’s treatment of Fakhra Younus against the treatment meted out to her by her mother country, the people of Pakistan have gained a potent example. This is a ‘God sent’ opportunity for us to re-visit ourselves and make a personal, moral, and psychological revolution towards achieving a goal that will empower us to enforce the same morality on government—only then will government become subservient to our rights.
If this comparison ignites a vital debate, awareness of your kindness will steer us towards what we should be instead of what we have become.
Public awareness alone can bring us out of the deep well of ignorance in which we have been thrown. The potent example of Italy’s care for Fakhra Younus can guide our people in the direction of progress, posterity, equality, justice and identity… a way of life we inherited from our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
I myself have witnessed the practice of my great religion in the response of your people to Fakhra. Fakhra and I walked through the beautiful city of Rome, climbed the multiple stairs of Sicily, strolled down the cobbled streets of Cortona, walked into exclusive boutiques and designer stores. We sat at outdoor restaurants in the summer and watched as hundreds of people passed us by. We met important friends at prestigious hotels where heads of state reside; we were entertained by some of the most beautiful, wealthy and sought-after people of the world. We laughed and joked with students and tourists at Piazza d’Espania, lazed in your beautiful parks, dined at the most famous restaurants, cheered at football matches and, by the grace of Allah, never once did any person belittle or demean Fakhra based on her appearance. Your loving support of Fakhra is a reflection of your people’s moral acceptance of a universal responsibility towards mankind. Indeed they have proved that all religions are based on one common tenet—humanitarianism. Division is inhuman.
It is worth mentioning that when Fakhra Younus died her son refused to allow the Pakistan embassy to hold a memorial service for his mother. The Pakistan mission’s acknowledgement of her existence was no longer required… she was dead. It is also worth noting that upon the arrival of her remains in Karachi, Fakhra’s coffin was draped with the flags of both countries she called home: Pakistan and Italy. The country she loved and the country that loved her.
She has left the people of Pakistan with the comparison of her own example. May it sink like a seed, take root, and breed Islam’s justice and humanitarianism.
I myself am personally beholden to the country of Italy and her people. Thirteen years ago, when mine was just a lone voice—a voice one woman raised for another woman—you heard us from such a great distance.
Thank you. I remain forever indebted,