Zakia Parveen, a Pakistani Acid-Attack Survivor, Visits New York for the Women of the Year Awards

From left to Right: (back) Minky Worden(HRW), Annie Ali Khan, Zakia Parveen, Waheed Pervez, Sunbul Naz, (front)Sarah J. Robbins (Glamour), Alison Goldman(Glamour) and Rita Pearl(RMP) at the Empire State Building Rooftop.

From left to Right: (back) Minky Worden(HRW), Annie Ali Khan, Zakia Parveen, Waheed Pervez, Sunbul Naz, (front)Sarah J. Robbins (Glamour), Alison Goldman(Glamour) and Rita Pearl(RMP) at the Empire State Building Rooftop.

When Glamour honored Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy at the Women of the Year Awards earlier this month, she took the stage with one of her heroes, Zakia Parveen— a central protagonist of Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face. Zakia’s quiet confidence, evident in each frame of the film she’s in, was just as clear as the 40-year-old acid attack survivor stood on stage in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall alongside Obaid-Chinoy, sharing her experience and urging women like herself to speak up against violence. Saving Face, amongst other things, documents Zakia’s struggle to bring her ex-husband to justice, who, after she filed for divorce from him, threw acid on her face. The doctor who treated Zakia told her she was lucky she only lost one eye in the brutal attack.

The day before the awards, I arrived to receive Zakia and her family at the airport. I was going to be Zakia’s translator for the duration of her stay. I did not know much about Zakia beyond what I had seen in the documentary and a brief phone conversation before her arrival. This was to be her first trip outside of the country, and her son’s first time in an airplane. In Pakistan, the documentary had brought forth all sorts of reaction from people. There had been backlash directed at Sharmeen for highlighting this shameful practice, but more importantly there had also been a new surge in reforms to protect women from acid attacks and other forms of violence. I myself was brought up in Pakistan and can relate to some if not all of the social taboos Zakia has faced.  Women are still discouraged to appear on public media platforms or to discuss personal issues publicly lest they sully the honor of the family. I wanted to know how Zakia had overcome these challenges.

The temperature was in the low 50s and it was a little chilly inside the airport as well. There was a thin trickle of passengers when Zakia walked out, flanked by her two children—her daughter Sunbul(15) on one side and on the other her son Waheed(27.)

Zakia was dressed in a brown shalwar kamiz and baby blue sparkly scarf wrapped around

her head. The scars visible in the early part of the documentary had healed significantly, and her skin looked smooth. As she approached, the prosthetic mask that covered her missing nostril and part of her cheek became visible. It contained a painted eye with lashes and a pupil drawn inside. Though well crafted, it lacked the spark and vigor of her remaining good eye. I gave Zakia a hug in greeting, and Sarah Robbins of Glamour asked me to convey to Zakia what an honor it was to have her here.  The airport may have been cold, but we did our best to provide a warm welcome to the country.

“I covered my face because people on the flight were staring and were starting to talk about my face,” Zakia told me. Her comment evoked the images I’d seen of her in the documentary, where she often covered her face and wore sunglasses when she went out.

Later that week, though, she remarked that New Yorkers did not look as much.  I told her that it took a lot to make New Yorkers stare.

If Zakia was overwhelmed in any way by the whirlwind schedule, it did not show. She was smiling and calm at the rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, where she took directions from Sharmeen on where to stand and when to speak. Afterward there was a trip to the Glamour beauty department, where both Zakia and Sunbul picked out foundation, eye shadows, nail colors and lipsticks. I helped pick out pink glitter nail polish for Sunbul who wore pink throughout the trip, and lipsticks in various shades of peach for Zakia. The girls in the beauty department pulled out trays full of makeup and there were oohs and aahs. For once I did not need to translate for anyone. Waheed was the only one looking bored.  As our tour continued, one of the staff members we stopped to chat with was shocked to hear that 40-year old Zakia had a 27-year old son. “I married when I was 16, but my family registered me as 18 on the marriage certificate,” Zakia said.

Riding the subway with them for the first time was as exciting for us as it was for them. “Women here drive trains too?” asked Sunbul with amazement when she saw the conductor of the incoming train.  In the packed, bright interior, I noticed passengers starting to look at Zakia’s face, but it seemed that she was enjoying herself too much to mind. There were just a few short days to see so much, she lamented.

A trip to Madame Tussaud’s was packed in, along with a visit to Battery Park, where Zakia was introduced to Lady Liberty. When Zakia’s footwear proved unequal to the task, Sarah brought her a pair of sneakers, after which there was no catching up with her as she zoomed from place to place. Zakia told us that she would walk miles to the nearest bazaar back home. “The rickshaws are too expensive,” she said.

The day after the awards, Minky Worsen, Human Rights Watch’s  Director of Global Initiatives, greeted us at their office in the Empire State Building. During the Q&A, Zakia spoke about her struggle against her own family and her community, which discouraged her from fighting the case against her husband. “We would tell everyone the gas cylinder exploded in my face while I was cooking,” she said. No one understood why she wanted to leave her husband, despite seven long years of abuse.  “Only men are human beings,” she told the crowd.  “Women are cattle.”

There was a brief tour of the famous Empire rooftop before we headed to the café for a snack. Minky, Sarah, Zakia and Sunbul shared a coconut vanilla cupcake. I, too, joined the communal snack at Zakia’s insistence. Afterwards, Minky asked me how to say thank you.  “Shukriya,” Minky said to Zakia.  “Thank you,” replied Zakia, as they shook hands.

On the way to the airport, I asked Zakia what she most enjoyed about her trip to New York. “No one here looks at me uncomfortably when they speak to me,” she said. “The women I met were all so nice, so supportive.”

She has two more operations to go before her surgery would be complete. She said she wanted most an artificial eye. It would help her go out in public without having to cover her face. Zakia said she drew strength from the support of her children who continued to stand by her side.

Zakia’s bravery illustrates the need for readers to support efforts to help acid attack victims. To donate, click here [link to:


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