Reshma Qureshi is determined to show the world that acid attack survivors are much more than mere victims of tragedy, Neha Pant reports.
She was walking to take an exam with her sister Gulshan, when Gulshan’s estranged husband, accompanied by two other men attacked them. The girls who had traveled from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh just for the exam, screamed for help, but nobody stepped forward. As she struggled to save her sister, she was pinned to the ground and sulfuric acid was poured on her. In a matter of seconds, her face was burnt and covered in scar tissue. She also lost an eye and her life, as she knew it.
For a while at least, life became a series of multiple skin-graft surgeries as Qureshi tried to regain her confidence and sense of self. The fact that her assailants roamed free aided to her anguish and she even considered suicide.
19-year-old Reshma Qureshi then met Ria Sharma, the founder of Make Love, Not Scars—an NGO that aims at helping acid attack survivors regain control of their lives on their “own terms through recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration.”
There are nearly 400 acid attacks per year according to the National Crime Records Bureau. 85 per cent of the victims of these attacks are women. The deadly acid is readily available in chemist shops across India even though the Supreme Court of India ordered an end to its open sale in 2013. Statistics show that the number of these attacks is only on the rise.
The Social Justice Bench of the Supreme Court ordered the government to convene a meeting to hear the PILs on acid attack cases and file a detailed affidavit on the number of acid attack cases, mechanism for treatment, compensation and rehabilitation of the victims.
Qureshi was assaulted in Allahabad, the heart of Uttar Pradesh which topped the list with 185 cases till November 2014. It also had the largest numbers of non-arrests at 66.
A study done by the National Commission for Women lists out the reasons for acid attacks as revenge, punishment, personal enmity and rejection. Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, a 2011, Cornell University report, states that acid attacks, “like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena. Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to “keep women in their places. In many countries, women are victims of acid attacks when they allegedly or actually transgress hegemonic gender norms and roles that discriminate against women and keep them in subordinated positions.”
The study also says, “a significant portion of attacks in India and Bangladesh occur when a woman exercises decision-making power by rejecting a suitor’s marriage or love proposal….attackers aim for a woman’s face in an attempt to destroy what many members of society consider to be one of her most important assets — her beauty.”
Qureshi who has somewhat become the face of acid attack victims in India has challenged this notion by posting beauty videos under the now viral campaign #EndAcidSale. The videos show her doing things which regular girls do despite her situation and are aimed at awareness, as well as to do away the stigma that is attached to being an acid attack survivor in the country.
The Indian law enforcement has also resolved to combat the crime by having a strict policy in place that starts with immediately lodging an FIR, certified medical treatment that states that no hospital can refuse treatment under any pretexts. The victims are also to be given Rs. 3 lakhs. Whether these laws are implemented or not, only time will tell.
Qureshi on the other hand is still offering hope to survivors. Just last week, she walked the ramp at New York Fashion Week for FTL Moda, a fashion production company that routinely challenges fashion industry’s stereotypes of beauty. Last year they invited Madeline Stuart who has Down Syndrome to take part in their show.
“I feel really good and the experience was really great. It had definitely changed my life, “she said speaking in Hindi, right after the show. She also said that, acid attack victims have all rights to enjoy their lives like everyone else. “What happened to us is not our fault and we’ve done nothing wrong and so we should also move forward in life….I want to tell the world — do not see us in a weak light and see that even we can go out and do things. People have a tendency to look at acid attack survivors from one perspective and I don’t want them to look at them like that anymore … I do feel brave.”