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Bina Akhter faces the world with courage and strength



"Just ask for the burned girl," Bina Akhter says, giving directions to her home on Dhaka's outskirts in Bangladesh. Throughout the narrow maze of streets, people nod in recognition and point. Bina greets her visitors with a strong hug and a contagious smile. Her energy matches her age--at 17, she is a giddy whirlwind.

Settling to speak, she sits on the swept concrete floor of her uncle's modest hut and tucks her long, feathery bangs behind a deformed ear, revealing a useless left eye. She recounts each painful detail of her story. Dano, a teenage boy, had a crush on Bina's cousin, who did not return his affection. One night, while Bina and her cousin were asleep in a shared bed, Dano and a few friends entered their room. Bina, to protect her cousin, jumped in front of Dano. At first, Bina thought the burning liquid thrown in her face was boiling water.

Sulfuric acid, common in car batteries and available for 50 cents a liter in garages throughout Bangladesh, dissolves iron and bores holes in wood.Imagine the effect on human flesh. Bina's eye has melted down her cheek while two holes punched into a bulb of scarred flesh act as a nose. Perfect teeth have lost the upper frame of lip, leaving her smile unconfined. She underwent numerous operations in the nine months she spent at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Dr. S.L. Sen, the plastic surgeon who operated on Bina and who has also treated other acid victims, says, "With acid, they usually aim for the face. It symbolizes beauty. Taking away beauty takes away the woman's value."

Indeed, acid-attack victims typically see their lives all but ruined. Many are forced to give up school and work, and the recovery is long and expensive. In Bangladesh, a poor and conservative Islamic country, marriage--usually arranged--means economic survival for many women. A burned girl, considered unmarriageable, will often be rejected by her own family. She is expected to live her life in a state of shame, her face covered by a veil. She is not expected to speak out. Bina has defied all these expectations.

Acid attacks have been on the rise in Bangladesh since the first was reported in 1976. Naripokkho, a Dhaka-based women's activist organization founded in 1983, began in 1996 to track acid violence reported in local papers. The number--47 that year--surged to 130 two years later. In April 1997, Naripokkho sponsored a workshop for acid survivors. Bina, then 15, was among nine participants: Selina, 11, was the youngest, and Monira, 18, the eldest. Six girls, including Bina, were burned in incidents involving rejected suitors--the most common scenario--while two were burned by their husbands for not obtaining larger dowries. When Nargis, 14, refused to become her neighbor's second wife, he sprayed her genitals with acid while she was in the bathroom that she and her brother shared with the neighbor's family.

This brutal form of "If I cannot have her, no one will" is not just a problem in Bangladesh. In a widely reported U.S. case, in 1986 two men slashed a Manhattan model, Marla Hanson, in the face. Hanson's landlord, Steven Roth, a television makeup artist whose overtures Hanson had rejected, orchestrated the attack after Hanson broke her lease early and demanded the return of her rent deposit. In June 1998, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel related that a man hired a woman to throw acid on his ex-girlfriend. Other attacks, motivated primarily by a woman's rejection of a man's advances, have been reported in Egypt, England, India, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Vietnam.

Nasreen Huq, the Naripokkho women's health project coordinator, says acid violence is usually targeted at young, beautiful women. "The motivation is revenge. In Bangladesh, an exchange of looks, or just the fact that a man likes a woman, means to him that she is obligated to like or love him." As Bina says, "If a girl says no to a marriage proposal, the boy thinks, 'I'm a good husband, I have everything. How can she not marry me?' They are so angry--they think, 'How dare she? Well, I will destroy her life.'" At Naripokkho's 1997 meeting, which gave birth to a nationwide campaign against acid violence, Bina stood out. Her outspokenness and courage inspired the other girls to share their stories and take off the veils that hid their scars.

A Naripokkho publication summarizing the event credits Bina for her "determination that the workshop not only be for grieving, but an occasion for joyous celebration because they were alive and life was still worth living." Soon after the conference, Bina was named head of Naripokkho's acid advocacy program.

She and others working against acid violence have their work cut out for them. There are few services for victims (the sole public burn unit in Bangladesh has eight cots reserved for women), and little legal recourse. Though Bangladesh law calls for the death penalty when acid throwing results in death or permanent facial damage, only a handful of perpetrators have been tried. In Bina's case, after she brought charges, community elders began bullying her uncle. She says, "I went to them and said, 'Why are you talking to my uncle? I filed the case.'" Local officials never arrested Dano; ultimately Bina's family was forced to move. Bina believes that "many stories never come out because the attacker says, 'We have money, you cannot hurt us,' or 'If you give this to the paper, we'll do worse things.'"

As the head of Naripokkho's acid program, Bina's immediate priorities are providing services for victims and raising public awareness. She tracks acid incidents reported in Bangladesh and abroad, corresponds with survivors, counsels hospital patients, and documents survivors' stories for publication. She travels throughout the country to address public gatherings about her experience and to visit survivors who cannot afford the trip to Dhaka. Nasreen Huq remembers Bina's first public speaking engagement. "We took her to Patharghata, on World Youth Day in 1997. She gave an electrifying speech--the entire town heard it because speakers were set up in the main square. The town embraced Bina. They kept saying, 'If we are staring at you, it's because we cannot imagine how cruel and inhuman a person can be.'"

UNICEF chose Bina to attend the Children's Leadership Conference in New York in July 1998. The trip--Bina's first abroad--was enlightening. She says, "I thought abuse and torture were only in Bangladesh. Everybody had similar stories." When she returned from New York, she resolved never to cover her face again. "I used to wear a veil, but now I don't want to hide anything," she says. "What happened to me isn't my fault. When people see me, they will realize the consequences of acid throwing."

Naripokkho distributes leaflets that explain what to do in the event of an acid attack. "I met a girl who went to take an exam, and some boys threw acid on her," Bina says. "She put water on her face and the burns weren't so bad. The next day, she went back to school to take her exam. She came to Naripokkho to thank me." Perhaps the most difficult, and rewarding, part of Bina's job is counseling victims. This work begins in the hospital when victims arrive for treatment. Bina visits and encourages each patient throughout the surgery and recovery process. Huq says, "Every time Bina counsels a victim, in a way she's reliving her own experience. Many times, she'll come back to the office and cry."

Bina is a role model for girls who have been attacked. "She has given everybody courage," Huq says. "Other girls come to our office and see Bina laughing and joking, and they cannot believe it. They want to be like her." A support group meets weekly at Naripokkho's offices in downtown Dhaka. At one such meeting, Bina--radiant in a gold-trimmed tangerine sari, her hair swept back in a pony tail--was surrounded by three giggling girls. Their scars varied from blistered flecks to the total absence of smooth flesh, but their shared experience joined them in a chilling sorority.

In November 1998, a Spanish company flew six acid victims to Valencia for cosmetic surgery. Huq says, "Bina was offered a place, but she felt other people needed it more than she. She was also scared." Bina acknowledges her fear: "Every time I went for an operation, I felt like I was dying. I'm scared to go through it again. I have to get an operation so my eyes are better--then I can concentrate on education. "Knowing I'm helping other people gives me the strength to continue my work," she says. "A lot of guys I see in the streets are scared of me now."

Liz Welch is a freelance writer based in New York City.


Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009