Margaret Heera runs her fingers through her customer’s hair. “You must manage time for yourself and your skin,” she says, as she ties the hair into an elaborate knot.
The beauty salon in Lahore is busy. Sitting between potted plants on chairs facing full-length mirrors, women are waiting to get their hair cut or styled, for manicures and pedicures.
The salon is a place of sanctuary for women in the city. But for Heera, 29, it’s much more.
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Sipa/REX
One day in 2013, Heera’s husband of two years locked her in a room and poured acid over her face and body. He was unhappy about the small dowry she’d received from her parents when they had married.
Every year many women in Pakistan are attacked with acid, despite legislation aimed at preventing such attacks.
Heera is one of seven women currently working in the Depilex salon as part of a jobs scheme for acid attack survivors who are often shunned , overlooked for jobs and treated as outcasts.
“At first, most of the clients were shocked when they saw me, my scars … they wouldn’t allow me to work for them, but now it’s all good. Everyone is very supportive,” says Heera. “Now, I am independent. I am investing in my son’s education.”
At first, most of the clients were shocked when they saw me, my scars … but now it’s all good
Launched in 1980 by businesswoman Masarrat Misbah, the salon chain has spread across the country. In 2005, Misbah set up the Depilex Smileagain Foundation to support burn victims, particularly survivors of acid attacks, with reconstructive surgery, counselling, vocational training, and jobs in her salons.
Abdiya Shaheen, Smileagain’s programme manager, said that out of 750 women registered with the foundation, 460 are survivors of acid attacks.
Most acid attackers are men, and the majority of victims are women. The attacks often happen because women are perceived to be shunning gender traditions, by refusing a marriage proposal for example. Women have also been attacked with acid for giving birth to girls.
Legislation introduced in Pakistan in 2011 saw offenders face between 14 years and life imprisonment, as well as a fine of 1 million rupees (£4,700).
According to data collected by NGO the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), between 2007 and 2018 there were 1,485 reported cases of acid attacks in Pakistan. About a third involved children splashed with acid when family members were attacked.