This short story is intended to highlight various double standards, contradictions and ironies related to cosmetics and the role of women.
Read the story below or skip straight to More on why I wrote this story.
She’s doing it again. Walking in public alone. With her hair loose. But this time she’s wearing…
Makeup! Red, red lipstick. Red, red blush. Dark, dark mascara. Her father should never have allowed her to go to that university. Women have no place in law. Or politics.
How dare she.
Jamila hesitates as she approaches the stately building. A glance over her shoulder. She ascends the steps, poised in the elegant blue pumps under her black robe.
Dr Wendy Sharpe comes out to meet her. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. The party needs your expertise, Dr Noor.”
Jamila’s pulse jumps. She appreciates Dr Sharpe’s welcome. But it would be more discreet inside.
That blonde looks like a whore. I’ve got to stop this.
Ahmed will sell me what I need.
Jamila hands the dossier back to Dr Sharpe. “Karim is a good compromise.”
“But his father is a hardline conservative.” Dr Sharpe frowns. She adjusts her tailored, creamy shirt.
Jamila takes a sip from a china teacup, leaving crimson lipstick on the edge. “Karim is more moderate. He’s lived among Westerners and he wants to modernise. The alternative is Mubarak. He’s too progressive at this time.”
“I don’t like the idea of getting into bed with Karim’s family.” The grey-haired Professor Smith is as pale and washed out as Jamila is dark and vibrant.
“His father has problematic views but he listens to his son. You don’t have to take my advice but why bring me in if you’ve already made up your minds?”
“Dr Noor is right,” says Dr Sharpe. “This country is not ready for such a radical shift. I recommend Karim.”
“I hope we don’t regret this.” Professor Smith downs the rest of his whiskey. “I’ll call in your husband, Wendy. He can escort you both back.” He nods at Jamila. “Thank you for your time, Dr Noor. We appreciate your insight.”
As the door closes behind him, Dr Sharpe leans forward. “It was brave of you to come alone, Dr Noor. I was surprised.”
Jamila inclines her head. Best to say nothing.
There she is. I will stop her. That Western woman too. They’ve corrupted her.
I wish they’d hurry.
Jamila waits with Dr Sharpe at the top of the stairs.
“What’s taking him so long?” Dr Sharpe takes out her phone to message her husband.
Jamila is not impatient. She’ll arrive home long before Ishak. He’ll never know she’s been out.
She touches her face. A tinge of foundation smudges her fingertip. She’s happy to wear this new brand. Recommended by her sister.
This container is heavy.
“There you are!” Dr Sharpe takes her husband’s arm.
“Sorry dear, got caught up talking to the ambassador.”
“Peter, this is the amazing Dr Noor.”
The three of them start down the stairs.
“We always enjoy meeting the locals,” says Peter.
“Thank you, Mr Sharpe.”
How dare she speak to another man!
Come closer, you dirty—
“I understand you have family commitments, Dr Noor, but it would be lovely to have you join us for dinner.”
“I’m sorry but that won’t be possible.” Jamila rubs the bruise on her arm.
It won’t be possible because you’ll never want to show your face again!
A scream from Dr Sharpe.
Jamila stumbles backwards as a man leaps out in front of them. He looks just like Ishak. Her husband.
Peter thrusts his wife behind him and lunges for Jamila, pushing her out of the way.
The pungent odour of sulphuric acid burns her nostrils. A shriek escapes as the brown liquid splashes over Jamila’s forehead, cheeks, chin.
And Ishak is screaming with rage at her.
“Dirty slut! Lying whore! Your life is over!”
She’s crying, yelling back at Ishak. She’s seen other women with the scars. She’s even nursed a dear friend as she moaned during recovery.
But she never really believed this could happen to her. Had laughed at her sister’s concern.
“Water!” Dr Sharpe’s voice calling. “ Water!” She cradles Peter in her arms on the ground. His face is blistering and he’s gasping, moaning in agony.
People run towards them. Someone hands Jamila a bucket of water although she feels no pain. “Pour it over yourself. We’ll get more.” A pair of security guards handcuff Ishak, who’s still hurling abuse at her.
She should be hurt. Jamila knows this. But she’s not. She places the bucket on the ground and washes her face.
When she looks up again, her skin is smooth, clear of burns or blemishes. The ambulance pulls up, siren wailing.
Why hasn’t her face burned? She must be a witch.
“You were very fortunate.” The nurse in the hospital cuts away Jamila’s chemical-soaked clothing. “They’ve come a long way with that acid-repelling makeup.”
“Lucky I bought it for you.” Jamila’s sister, Rana, hovers over the bed.
“I did not want it but the foundation was a very nice blend. Thank you, sister.”
“You’re lucky most of your hair is intact,” the nurse says. “Unfortunately, Peter Sharpe did not fare so well.”
“He tried to save me. And his wife. I must thank him.”
A knock on the door and a doctor opens it a crack. “The police would like to speak to Jamila,” he says.
The nurse nods. “Just a moment.”
She and Rana help Jamila get dressed in fresh clothes. Another long black robe and the head covering. They place the acid-splashed items in a disposal bag. Jamila inspects her high-heeled blue pumps but they’re clear of marks.
When she’s ready, the police sidle in. Two officers, one old, the other young.
“We have a problem, Mrs Noor,” says the older officer.
“Dr Noor.” Rana corrects him.
“Hmmm.” The officer averts his eyes. “The thing is, Mr and Mrs Sharpe—”
Dr Sharpe, thinks Jamila.
“They insist on Ishak, your husband, being arrested and charged.”
“Good.” Rana crosses her arms. “So he won’t get away with this.”
The older officer stiffens. “Mr Noor says he was buying the acid for work. He was carrying it when he tripped and the acid splashed onto Mr Sharpe. It was an accident.”
“He tried to attack my sister! There were witnesses!” A protective arm encircles Jamila’s waist.
“Your sister is unharmed. She should never have been out of home meeting with these foreigners. It’s her fault that Mr Sharpe is—” He stops. Clears his throat. Still won’t look at Jamila. “It will be her fault if Mr Noor goes to jail because she does not tell the truth.”
Such a pliable commodity.
This is why Jamila meets with people like Dr Sharpe.
Jamila refuses to bend the truth, despite cajoling and veiled threats. Rana protests on her behalf, threatening the influence of their father. But Baba is old now, retired from law. He can’t do much. They all know it.
The whole time, the younger officer lets his gaze rove over Jamila. Her robe fully covers her but he stares at her the way he would a Western woman. One who exposes her arms and legs.
The officers finally give up and leave. “You are putting a good man in jail. Your own husband. You have no loyalty.”
Jamila watches them through the window as they exit the hospital. At the police car, the younger officer pops the trunk and takes out a container. The empty acid bottle. He glances up at the third storey. At her.
She takes a step back, trying to be silent. Then Jamila realises she no longer has to tiptoe. Does she? She sits down, thinking. Rana is out fetching the nurse to do final checks. Then she can be discharged.
Her sister has left out a fresh batch of cosmetics. Pale pink label with gold edging. Alwa, the brand name reads. Natural ingredients. Non-allergenic. Acid-repelling.
Jamila picks up the foundation. She unscrews the lid and dips in a finger.
And begins to reapply her armour.
She can’t go out in public without putting her face on.
More on why I wrote this story
I wrote this short story in after reading an article about a British doctor developing a makeup range that will repel acid. This was in response to the acid attack on British model Kate Piper by her boyfriend.
I have questions about how this acid-repelling makeup works, how often it needs to be reapplied and whether it will protect non-skin regions, like hair. Nevertheless, I thought this was an amazing example of using science and technology for a positive purpose to protect others. Especially since I work with charities that assist women in countries where acid attacks are most likely to occur. It’s a way of getting revenge on a woman in cultures where a female’s worth is based on her attractiveness. Take away her beauty and supposedly her life is over. Of course, acid attacks also happen to men too – the prevalence of such violence is more common in the UK.
The makeup range will be on the market in 2020, available in regions such as India, the Middle East and the UK, where acid attacks are highest.