The Silent Veil

“Self-esteem in its gendered dimensions informs the will to empower through the transformative capacities of beauty for not only emotional well-being (feeling good) but also cultural competency (doing good).”

–Nguyen, page 370

While reading about the women of Afghanistan and the functions of Beauty without Borders, I was reminded of the “Smile Again” organization in neighboring Pakistan. In the city of Lahore, human rights activist and make up artist Musarrat Misbah founded the Salon Depilex Smile Again. Her goal is to give “new life” to women victimized by acid attacks. An acid attack occurs when acid or similarly corrosive substance is thrown onto an individual with the intent to main, disfigure or kill them.

Acid attacks occur throughout the world, for a variety of reasons. In South East Asia and The Middle East, acid attacks are occurring more and more frequently. In Pakistan, women are often attacked by their husbands for “dishonoring them”—sometimes for dressing inappropriately other times for marriage proposal rejections or being the victim of rape. If the victim survives the acid attack they are left on their own, cut off from their families and disfigured.

In 2012, Sharmeen Obiad-Chinoy won an Oscar for her film “Saving Face” which follows two acid attack survivors as they attempt to bring their attackers to justice and change the punishments for assailants. Also in 2012, the Pakistani Senate passed two bills imposing punishments on people who attack women with acid, but the laws do nothing to curb the violence, as it is difficult to implement these laws. In the absence of a true form of justice, Misbah is doing her part to help victims.

Her organization not only provides medical treatment and legal representation for the victims, it also provides a safe space for the women to coexist. Nguyen said “beauty becomes a human right through the traditional concept of dignity.” The women become trained cosmetologists, helping each other and non-victim Pakistani women improve their appearance. Smile Again also provides psycho social workshops for acid burn victims, where they get to know other vicitims, and improve their body image and self confidence.

I felt Nguyen’s article was placed a little too far outside the localities Beauty without Borders was trying to aid. There was a huge focus on humanitarianism and trying to “save” women in from the regressive and premodern cultural standards (i.e. the burqa). The divide between the west and“the “rest” was too clear. The case of acid attack victims is interesting because it brings up elements of the make-over culture (as they often need full reconstructive surgery), and Smile Again itself utilizes the beauty industry to help these women who have been stripped of their dignity. And importantly, it is the result of local women helping other local women as they rebuild their lives.

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2 thoughts on “The Silent Veil

  1. While reading this I was reminded of another reading I had done some time ago. It was in a book called The Noonday Demon, which is about clinical depression. There is one short section describing a trip the author took to Cambodia, where he spoke with a woman named Phaly Nuon. This woman had survived the massacres of the Khmer Rouge and “set up her hut in the camp as a sort of psychotherapy center” in order to help other women who, like her, had lost a great deal during the Khmer Rouge’s regime and suffered depression or PTSD because of it (36). She describes her “formulaic system”: she first tries to distract them and help them by teaching them crafts; she teaches them to work, whether they want “to clean houses” or to “begin toward a real profession” (36). Finally, she says, “I teach them to love… I teach them how to give one another manicures and pedicures… because doing that makes them feel beautiful, and they want so much to feel beautiful. It also puts them in contact with the bodies of other people and makes them give up their bodies to the care of others. It rescues them from physical isolation… bit by bit they learn to trust one another, and by the end of it all, they have learned how to make friends, so that they will never have to be so lonely and so alone again” (36-37).

    This is a situation in which the ‘abling’ capacity of beauty – that is, its ability to unhobble the female body, to lift the crippling caused directly by not-being-ideal-in-whatever-way – is actually quite beneficial. Beauty is often medicalized in situations where it should not be. However, this example points to beautification as a treatment for very real, very imminent medical problems – one which restores dignity in some way (similar, I’d imagine, to the psychological issues experienced by the women who are victimized by acid attacks, as mentioned in Kate’s blog post). The medicalization of beauty is, therefore, a very complex phenomenon, which is neither fully good nor fully bad.

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    1. I think the conversation around this becomes hard and you put it nicely when saying “medicalization of beauty is, therefore, a very complex phenomenon, which is neither fully good nor fully bad.” In the case of these victims of acid attacks, I think the issue becomes less about beauty and more about feeling normal/fitting in, which is an argument for plastic surgery that we’ve talked about, exhaustively, might I add. But then I struggle to qualify the term “normal” and in what context. Nguyen says that beauty and ability get lumped together through a discourse of dignity which I think ties back in to feeling like you can fit in. I often think of my 7-year old cousin who was born with a cleft palate and how already in his short life he’s gone through three operations in order to ‘normalize’ his face. He tells me that some of the students at school make fun of him for his “funny nose” and it breaks my heart. I don’t know that his case is a case for beauty, but maybe ability and social acceptance. But then again isn’t that a form or dignity and social capital that would allow him social mobility in the same kinds of ways as beauty? I don’t really have any answers to all these questions but I agree with you and think that there is no straightforward answer when it comes to issues like these.

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