Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Acid Behind The Scarred Face

A life as full of agonizing pain and gratuitous cruelty as that of Pakistani acid-burn victim Fakhra Younas must be honored and brought to bear upon the souls of nations in many ways. Karachi filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy had begun to do just that, winning Pakistan’s first Academy Award for “Saving Face”, a documentary that followed harrowing acid-attack stories like Ms Younas'. So does Declan Walsh, in a recent New York Times story announcing her suicide, on March 17, 2012.

Here, I want to make a space to understand just that facial disfigurement is a uniquely devastating wound. Not just an irretrievable loss of a multiple-function system, facial disfigurement is profoundly jarring to a fundamental sense of self—which may explain why acid attack is a weapon of choice for some vindictive South Asian men.

Born of a heroin addicted mother into a brutally difficult life, Fakhra Younas had become a dancing girl as a teenager. A photograph of Ms. Younas taken before the crime displays a tough cookie, ebulliently self-aware, self-reliant, even ambitious. After the crime, frighteningly disfigured, she fled her home and her husband, taking her young son with her to Italy, where she was protected under political asylum. She learned to speak Italian, and submitted herself thirty-eight times to facial surgery, paid for by a Milan cosmetics company, just to be able to open one eye and close her lips. Plastic surgeon Dr. Valerio Cervelli found her “so headstrong, so independent.” She knew how to leverage the notoriety of her plight, and spared no energy doing it. She wrote a memoir, “Il Volto Cancellato (The Erased Face)”, published in Italian, French and German, which sold well enough to support herself and her son, now a high school student in Rome. “She ventured outside fearlessly,” writes Walsh, “armed only with a bawdy sense of humor ingrained on the streets of Karachi,” sometimes, for example, brandishing her false ear at the soccer stadium as crowd control. Then the faces of acid-attack victims like herself appeared on the silver screen, winning accolades and a sense of Pakistani national pride, despite the documentary's damning subject matter, for the homeland to which she could never return.

And in the astringent limelight have awakened the stirrings of a national conscience, of political movement, however timorous, toward justice for women. And once-unimaginable miracles of craniofacial innovation have begun to make daily headlines around the world...

But Ms Younas herself, say her son and her closest friends, had never overcome her sense of isolation, and a deep-rooted depression, and an unassuageable sorrow for her lost self. Finally, last month, perhaps in search of that self, Fakhra Younas stepped off a sixth-floor balcony in Rome, and died.