LAHORE, Pakistan -- Saira Liaqat squints through her one good eye as she brushes a woman's hair. Her face, most of which the acid melted years ago, occasionally lights up with a smile. Her hands, largely undamaged, deftly handle the dark brown locks.
A few steps away in this popular beauty salon, Urooj Akbar diligently trims, cleans and paints clients' fingernails. Her face, severely scarred from the blaze that burned some 70 percent of her body, is somber. It's hard to tell if she's sad or if it's just the way she now looks.
Liaqat and Akbar are among Pakistan's many female victims of arson and acid attacks. Such tales tend to involve a spurned or crazy lover and end in a life of despair and seclusion for the woman.
The two instead became beauticians.
The women can't escape the mirrors or pictures of glamorous models that surround them, but they consider the salon a second home and a good way to make a living. The two also serve as reminders of that age-old lesson on beauty -- a lesson that, needed or not, they learned the hard way.
"Every person wishes that he or she is beautiful," says Liaqat, 21. "But in my view, your face is not everything. Real beauty lies inside a person, not outside."
"They do it because the world demands it," Akbar, 28, says of clients. "For them, it's a necessity. For me, it isn't."
Liaqat and Akbar got into the beauty business in the eastern city of Lahore thanks to the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, an organization devoted to aiding women who have been burned in acid or other attacks.
About five years ago, Masarrat Misbah, head of Pakistan's well-known Depilex salon chain, was leaving work when a veiled woman approached and asked for her help. She was insistent, and soon, a flustered Misbah saw why.
When she removed her veil, Misbah felt faint. "I saw a girl who had no face."
The woman said her husband had thrown acid on her.
Misbah decided to place a small newspaper ad to see if others needed similar assistance.
Forty-two women and girls responded.
Misbah got in touch with Smileagain, an Italian nonprofit that has provided medical services to burn victims in other countries. She sought the help of Pakistani doctors. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been raising money for the cause, in particular to build a special hospital and refuge for burn victims in Pakistan.
240 registered victims
Her organization has some 240 registered victims on its help list, 83 of whom are at various stages of treatment.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that in 2007, at least 33 women were burned in acid attacks, and 45 were set on fire. But the statistics are likely an undercount, as many cases go unreported for various reasons including out of fear of their attackers, or because the victims can't afford the legal bills.
The victims Misbah has helped need, on average, 25 to 30 surgical procedures over several years, but she soon realized that wasn't enough. Some, especially those who were outcasts in their families, had to be able to support themselves.
To her surprise, several told her they wanted to be beauticians.
She helped arrange for 10 women to train in a beauty course in Italy last year. Some have difficulty because their vision is weak or their hands too burned for intricate work. But several, including Liaqat and Akbar, are making their way in the field.
Akbar plans to use her income one day to support her little girl, whom she has barely seen since the attack.
"I'm independent now, I stand on my own two feet," she says. "I have a job, I work, I earn. In fact, I'm living on my own ... which isn't an easy thing to do for a woman in Pakistan, for a lone woman to survive."
On the Net
* www.smileagain.it (Italian only; English version under construction)