Absorbing the Inferno: A Voice Against Acid Attacks
Commemorating November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
Ifrah Sheikh is a junior at the University of Southern California (USC). A petite, caramel-skinned, hijab-wearing young woman whose family emigrated from Pakistan, Ifrah often spends time in front of a camera, using film to work through her thoughts, aspirations, and uncertainties. Recently her videos have been about the injustice of women in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whose lives are devastated the moment acid is thrown into their faces, leaving scars of shame and embarrassment for the rest of their days. Around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, but this number is far from representative of the true number of victims because most attacks are never reported (Survivors Trust International 2012).
WVN took the opportunity to get to know Ifrah Sheikh, who will speak at our event commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25). On Friday, November 30th, at Taper Hall, Room #102 on the USC campus, Ifrah will share her research and her hopes for a project she plans to take to the places where acid attacks occur. To further inform the public on the global issue of violence against women, two films from Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short Film Festival (2011) will also be screened at the event.
A Few Moments with Ifrah –
HBH for WVN: Tell me a bit about who you are, where you grew up and how you got to the point you are at today.
IS:My ethnic roots tie back to South Asia mostly. My mother was born in Pakistan and my father was born in Saudi Arabia but is ethnically from Pakistan as well. After they got married they both came to United States, eventually settling in Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up and consider home.
I was always a creative child, but I think I really delved into my artistic practice as a means of escape and expression right before I hit high school. I had a rough time in my adolescent years and art was one of the few things in my life that was empowering and comforting.
I struggled most of my life with reconciling my various identities. I am a first generation American, the daughter of immigrants, a Muslim woman, an artist, a person of color and an individual living a life as a minority within a minority.
It was only when I realized my struggle came from the negativity I was receiving from others did I become comfortable in my own skin. All my identities compliment each other beautifully in my mind and heart. I never felt an internal clash, I just had to learn not to care what people think and do what is best for myself. At this point I am at peace with who I am, which is a relatively new but wonderful feeling.
“Pain is fuel. It reminds me of what is important and who is important. It reminds me of my ultimate goal to make God proud. And it keeps the fire burning inside.”
HBH for WVN: Who has inspired you and your work most in your life?
IS:Each person in my family - my mother, my father, my brother and my sister - inspire me to be the best version of myself without having to say a word. They are fiercely and uniquely compassionate people and they have never given up on me.
The second group of people who have significantly inspired me are all the people who have hurt me in the past. The strength I have gotten from people who have told me I am not enough in one way or another is honestly the most empowering drive I have ever experienced. Pain is fuel. It reminds me of what is important and who is important. It reminds me of my ultimate goal to make God proud. And it keeps the fire burning inside.
HBH for WVN:You approached WVN to help you spread the word about your research and concern for acid attack victims in Central and South Asia. Why does this particular act of violence against women move you to do something?
IS:My devotion to this issue stems from my general concern for human rights, justice, and gender equality issues. I having been focusing on such ideas in my art since I hit college, which is also the time I became very involved in social and political activism and community work.
But if I look at this deeper, I think the reason I am putting in this much time and effort is because it is a very personal situation to explore. If by chance I had been born into a life without the opportunities I have been blessed with, I realize any one of those women could have been me. We have the same skin, the same dark hair and eyes, the same cultural reference. There is a familiarity that I cannot ignore, and it has captivated me. My focus is on women in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. I am creating paintings, sketches, video and photography work from my interpretation of this epidemic.
“If by chance I had been born into a life without the opportunities I have been blessed with, I realize any one of those women could have been me.”
HBH for WVN: What do you hope to gain by carrying out these projects? What do you hope to contribute by carrying out your work?
IS: I gain something every time I approach this project. It is hard to sort out my emotions and thoughts at this point because they are so complex and raw, but I think it definitely relates to figuring out my place within this project.
I have never experienced the physical situation these women are dealing with. But I have interacted with people who think they are inherently superior, a thought that is in the mind of every person who has attacked a woman with acid. I have felt what it is like to be stripped of my power and dignity, and I know how it rips you apart. So I hope to find a way to heal my own wounds as I continue this project.
My main goal is to bring awareness to this issue. It is so horrific, but at the same time it is foreign to most people. My strategy in accomplishing this goal is putting in time, dedication, sincerity and compassion. If I can maintain those things, I know I will be satisfied.
“My main goal is to bring awareness to this issue.”
HBH for WVN: What are acid attacks? Why and where do they occur? Who are the victims?
IS: Acid attacks are a form of violence, most commonly against women in third world countries. It is the premeditated surprise attack of throwing acid on someone. Hydrochloric or sulfuric acids are the most common types of acid used during an attack. The acid is so strong it begins to eat away at the flesh immediately and inflicts quick and permanent damage, often causing blindness and destruction of bone and cartilage. Since most of the victims are of low economic standing, the medical attention they receive is limited. Once the initial burns begin to heal, they rarely get secondary, reconstructive medical work done because of the cost and availability of such treatment.
The reason why this is such an effective form of violence against women is because it destroys their entire lives. Most victims live in a society where deformity is taboo and people with physical abnormalities are marginalized, belittled, mocked, and blamed.
HBH for WVN: Is this violence more prominent in one society or another? What are some of the institutions that uphold/enable acid attacks to occur/continue? What, if any, measures are being taken to prevent this form of violence against women?
IS: The reason why this is occurring differs from country to country. In Afghanistan, individuals who do not want women to get an education aim attacks at girls going to school. In Pakistan, marital disputes, problems between family members, or monetary conflicts spur such violence. Attacks in Bangladesh are occurring for the same reasons, but the patriarchal mindset there is definitely more severe and women in general are treated and regarded in an even more derogatory way than in Pakistan, which is why attacks happen a lot between unmarried, unrelated individuals. The idea of putting a women in her place is very rampant in India and the concept of revenge is a very strong motive for such attacks. India’s lingering caste system and internal racism does not help the situation either.
Corrupt governments, bribery, extensive sexism, poverty and a patriarchal ideology are only some examples of both the concrete and intangible institutes that uphold the acid attack epidemic. Unfortunately, this is happening in places where unrelated catastrophes are occurring on a daily basis as well. Many people look at this problem as just another bullet point on a long list of societal issues. People are becoming indifferent and desensitized, and there is a sense of apathy regarding this form of violence. In my opinion this is one of the most pressing concerns of this whole situation.
From the research I have done and what I understand of the issue, it is a multinational problem, religion is not a main component in terms of violence justification. Acid attacks stem from a common gender ideology that is based in culture. Women of all faiths have been victimized. It is more of a cultural phenomenon rather than a situation that is linked to specific religions. If there is one country where religion is brought into the picture more, it would have to be Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the Taliban takes large responsibility for throwing acid on girls walking to school because they don’t want women to be educated. However I would say that even there, the justification is mixed with historical and cultural traditions and terror ideology.
“Many people look at this problem as just another bullet point on a long list of societal issues. People are becoming indifferent and desensitized, and there is a sense of apathy regarding this form of violence.”
HBH for WVN: Do you have any sympathy for the men who carry out these attacks? Could you explain why men use this method to attain whatever it is their ultimate aims are?
IS: I think in general, regardless of the specifics of why men do this, it is ultimately about a common way of thinking. Most of these men honestly believe they have a right to do what they are doing. They have all, in some manner or another, been told they are superior to women intellectually, physically, spiritually, etc. It is an idea they have been taught and have adapted.
I am not excusing them for what they are doing. There is no excuse for this situation. There is no excuse for violence, disparagement, humiliation or power play, whether is manifests in the form of acid attacks or verbal abuse.
This is a difficult question for me to answer. In general, I always try to look for the reason people do horrific things. I have a hard time accepting that they are simply horrific people. I don’t want to believe it is simply evil at the root of this epidemic. I rather think that if things had been different for such individuals, they would never commit such heinous acts. But I might just be too idealistic, too altruistic. I have that tendency.
HBH for WVN: Do you think there is a global responsibility to prevent acid attacks? Or should this be dealt with internally, within each community?
IS: Forget talking about prevention. Before you can prevent anything from happening, you have to care. I think that on every scale, it is an obligation to be concerned with the wellbeing of others. That is why I am personally involved in so much activism and community service work. It is not because it is easy. It is much easier to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of this world. Ignorance is bliss. I do it because there is no question in my mind that is my responsibility as a human being. If we don’t look after one another, we will turn against one another.
To learn more about a title="Ifrah Sheikh " href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PX3TuQk8gTg&feature=youtu.be">Ifrah Sheikh and Women’s Voices Now, please join us, Friday, November 30, from 7-9pm in Room #102 of the Mark Taper Hall, USC, Los Angeles, California. Please click here for a map. For questions, please write Heidi Basch-Harod at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations are greatly appreciated, proceeds will directly benefit the work of Acid Survivors Foundation andWomen’s Voices Now, a registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit enterprise.
The event is graciously co-sponsored by Ansar Service Partnership (ASP), USC Muslim Student Union (MSU),Desis Instigating Social and Historical Opportunities En Masse (DISHOOM), DESI Projects (Defining and Exploring South Asian Issues), the USC Center for Men and Women, and the USC Interfaith Council.