Pakistan: Masarrat Misbah's stirling "Smile Again Foundation" for female victims of acid attacks Print E-mail
 Pakistan - January 25, 2007 Thursday Muharram 05, 1428

Helping to heal

By Shehar Bano Khan

"Although I’ve spent all my life making women look beautiful, somewhere deep inside me I knew there was something more I had to do. I knew my life was meant to have another objective. I’m not saying that beauty is trivial, but now I’ve discovered beauty with a purpose. Making these women look as they did before getting burnt has given me an entirely new perspective of beauty,” explains Masarrat Misbah

Masarrat Misbah could have sat back and enjoyed the fruit of her entrepreneurial success as one of the premier beauticians of this country. By dovetailing beauty with business acumen, the 47-year-old owner of several beauty salons, launched all across the country over more than two decades of hard work, has turned her personal vision into an empire worth millions of rupees.

The cosmetologist and beautician sits atop the tall order of running 28 outlets in Pakistan with subsidiaries in Dubai and the United Kingdom.

Ordinarily making money should have been enough. But not for Masarrat apa (as she is fondly referred to by everyone) whose desire to rise above mediocrity moved her from the salon business to setting up a production house.

And now, her most recent ‘call from within’ has been to establish the Smile Again Foundation to help female victims of acid throwing and burning. “Money has been made, children are well-settled and my business is running smoothly. God has been very kind to me. Launching of the Foundation is a way of thanking God for everything I have today,” says Misbah, CEO of SAF.

Beneath the indiscriminate, ready-to-flash smile and the finely chiselled face, crowned by fashionably coiffed grey hair, is an astute woman intent on getting to the far end once her mind is made up. Masarrat Misbah does not believe in stopping in the middle to make way for doubts. She has lived with the same single-minded resolution to fight through personal tribulations to raise her two children as a single parent. “Had it not been for my family’s support I couldn’t have done it all. My biggest support has been my father who’s encouraged me at every point in my life. He has always been there and is the biggest contributor to the NGO,” she says.

 If the Foundation is a redemption for Misbah, her 24/7 input into the cause of restructuring the lives of burn victims through reconstructive surgery has given her the drive to equate beauty with purpose. “Although I’ve spent all my life making women look beautiful, somewhere deep inside me I knew this was not all. I knew my life was meant to have another objective. I’m not saying that beauty is trivial, but now I’ve discovered beauty with a purpose. Making those women look as they did before getting burnt has given me an entirely new perspective on beauty,” explains Masarrat Misbah.

Recognising Masarrat Misbah’s efforts in physical and psychological reconstruction of female victims, an Italian NGO has awarded her with the meritorious ‘Una Donna Fuorri Dal Coro in Genoa, Italy. She is the first woman in Pakistan to receive one of Italy’s prestigious awards

Established in 2003, with the help of Clarice Felli, president of its counterpart Smile Again Italy and a well renowned plastic surgeon, the Foundation began work as a ‘support and assistance group for women who were victims of domestic violence with special emphasis in the area of acid and kerosene burning’. Three years later it has treated over 70 patients who are in various stages of reconstructive surgery and an additional 200 burn victims have been registered for treatment.

“SAF’s work doesn’t end at reconstructive surgery, it is the post-surgery psychological battle where the victim needs help. For that we’ve set up rehabilitation centres to provide shelter to survivors who are at times disowned by their families. We also give them vocational training like embroidery, sewing and whatever they’re good at to make them self-sufficient,” elaborates Misbah.

Masarrat Misbah gets up in the middle of the interview to flash that smile to one of her regular salon clients, who enters the room to engage into mindless conversation about how different she looks with her new hairdo. Bearing it all with her usual graciousness extended to everybody, Misbah responds appropriately making her feel the most cherished client of her salon and gently drops the name of the Foundation.

The woman nods blankly, turning to leave just as quickly as she had entered. “You can’t imagine how rich she is. Every time she comes I give her the organisation’s brochure, hoping to get some donation. I’m surprised how some people spend a huge amount of money on looking beautiful but are not willing to give some of it for a good cause,” complains Misbah.

As luck would have it, the NGO received a windfall when the state television aired a telethon to raise funds for the cause. In recognition of her efforts to raise awareness for female victims burnt beyond recognition, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, supported the Foundation’s work through a recorded statement for the telethon on national television and the Chief Minister of Punjab, Pervez Elahi, generously donated Rs25,000,000 for the rehabilitation of victims. The impact of the telethon was more than Misbah had anticipated because people from all over the country tapped in to donate. “I wasn’t expecting such a response. It was incredible!” she enthuses.

Since the Foundation’s inception a team of Italian doctors visits Pakistan four times a year, performing at least 12 surgeries on burns survivors. This team is helped by the Civil Military Hospital (CMH), the Shalimar Hospital, Jinnah Hospital, the National Defence Hospital and the Fatima Memorial Trust Hospital, five of Lahore’s leading hospitals.

After visiting the Smile Again Family Health Hospital and Vocational Training Centre in Wah Cantt, in early January 2007, an Italian delegation consisting of Clarice Felli and other well-reputed plastic surgeons suggested a proposal to invite eight burns survivors to Italy annually to attend vocational training programmes for three months.

Realising the dearth of medical care available to burns victims in Pakistan, a team of French surgeons, similar to the Italians, has pledged to treat more patients by increasing its number of annual visits, hence coming to Pakistan every three months. “Next time the French team will bring a physiotherapist to train local doctors and nurses on how to give therapy to burnt women. A proposal is also underway to set up a separate operation theatre with eight to 10 beds at a local hospital in Islamabad,” says Misbah.

At the moment the Foundation has sent two female patients and a child for reconstructive surgery to Italy. “During the Italian medical team’s visit to Pakistan in April 2006, preliminary check-ups of more than 50 burns survivors took place. Out of those, the team had operated on 24, while the rest were first time registrations,” she says.

Last year, Misbah took a delegation of the Foundation to Italy, including a visit to the Vatican City. “In Italy we met with important government officials who promised to help and the governor of the region La Quilla assured us partial assistance for the vocational training centre being established by us.”

Recognising Masarrat Misbah’s efforts in physical and psychological reconstruction of female victims, an Italian NGO, ‘International Manifestation on Women’s Day’ awarded her with the meritorious ‘Una Donna Fuorri Dal Coro (A woman who is superior amongst others for her excellent deeds and good work) in Genoa, Italy. She is the first woman in Pakistan to receive one of Italy’s prestigious awards.

Lining up her mantle of fame are other awards given to her by the president of Provincia de Roma, Adriano Labbuci and the president of Regional Council and the Region La Quilla for her work. In close cooperation with the government of Italy, the Foundation has started a training programme for the nurses at an Italian hospital, Ospedale Civile. Under this programme four nurses from Pakistan were sent to Udine, a town in Italy, for special training to handle patients suffering from acid burns.

Every time I look at a woman disfigured by acid I wonder about the carelessness with which it is sold and handled. Why are people allowed to sell acid? The government should have strict laws on acid sale and strictest of punishment for those responsible for ruining a woman’s life,” proposes Masarrat Misbah.