Fearless women stand up against acid attacks
By Meera Pattni
“I saw my dad, I hugged him and his entire shirt got burned, even after twenty buckets of water were poured on me,” says Laxmi Agarwal.
Agarwal was attacked with acid in 2005 while she was on her way to Delhi’s Khan Market. The reason? She dared to reject the advances of a man who had developed a one-sided admiration for her.
Her perpetrators involved two men and a woman, who followed her into the market.
“Each time I was crossing the road, they were crossing it on the other side. I had just moved a little ahead when they came up to me and pushed me to the ground and poured the glass full of acid on my face,” Agarwal recalls her ordeal.
She fell unconscious and thought she was dreaming. When she finally came back to her senses, she was screaming, but no one helped her.
“I fell from the sidewalk and…had an accident with a car three times. But no one helped me,” Agarwal recalls.
In the days that followed, Agarwal says she was made to feel like the criminal, while the attacker was treated like he was innocent.
“He was arrested four days after he attacked me, and a month later he was released on bail. And as soon as he was bailed out, he got married—and it wasn’t even a love marriage, it was an arranged marriage—so society accepted him but rejected me,” she explains.
Following the attack, Agarwal began covering her face with a veil.
“People tortured me so much…but I am thankful for what they said. They tried to make me negative, but I turned out the opposite,” Agarwal says, and she eventually stopped covering her face.
After Agarwal realized her self-worth, she went onto the path of helping other acid attack survivors and now campaigns with Stop Acid Attacks. In 2014, Agarwal was awarded the International Women of Courage by Michelle Obama and was chosen as the Indian of the Year by NDTV. Today Agarwal has a daughter named Pihu.
Agarwal is also one of the inspirations behind Priya’s Mirror, a comic book by Ram Devineni. The comic is a sequel to Priya’s Shakti (Priya’s power, in Hindi) and tells the story of a gang-rape survivor who fights back against sexual violence with the help of the Hindu goddess Parvati and a tiger. Priya helps other victims overcome their hardships and realize their self-worth and strength. Priya’s Shakti was honored by the U.N. as a gender equality champion.
Devineni got the idea to write Priya’s Mirror when he met acid attack survivors Laxmi and Sonia in Mumbai.
“What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure. How society treated them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbors and society determined what they did next. Often, they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them,” Devineni tells Newsweek Middle East.
He says that the comic book tries to “change people’s perceptions” of these “heroic women” through the character of Priya, who herself is a survivor of gang rape.
In it, the survivors are asked to look at themselves through the mirror of love, which encourages the women to see themselves deeper than what they look like.
“There is a good line in the comic book, which describes it perfectly: ‘Why should we hide our wounds? And why should we hide because of our wounds, sisters! Someone reduced you to only your face. But you are other things too. Look into this mirror and you will see,’” Devineni explains.
The World Health Organization’s statistics reflect a scary reality. One-third of the world’s female population has been subject to violence of any sort; that is 1 in every 3 women has experienced violence in her life.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, in 2015 alone there has been a reported number of 3.27 million recorded criminal cases against women.
A single acid attack has the power to turn the victims’ life around, and leads to mental, physical and emotional trauma. Acid attacks also take a financial toll on the families involved, according to experts.
“One of the hardest parts of surviving an acid attack is the recovery process. There are countless surgeries to [undergo], which takes both a financial and emotional toll on the victims and their families,” says Tania Singh of Make Love Not Scars NGO.
“They are perhaps made to feel alienated by their community and forced to hide away from people. Many survivors are not only physically but mentally scarred. They are unable to recognize themselves any more, and understandably become depressed,” she tells Newsweek Middle East.
Make Love Not Scars is an NGO based in India that raises awareness and helps victims overcome the trauma and rebuild their lives.
Family property disputes and jealousy are some of the causes behind acid attacks against victims, who most of the time happen to be women.
The most common cause, however, is rejection: the rejection of a marriage proposal, rejection of advances or merely a rejection of acknowledgment from the victim towards her or his perpetrator.
Activist Harrish Iyer says that people are not programmed to take no for an answer, and that patriarchy is fueled by “societal norms that put people on a pedestal.”
According to Iyer, the society creates further divide when it places women in the ranks of goddesses or says it considers them as such, but then turns a blind eye to the ordeal of millions of women out there.
“Until people are treated as people and there is greater focus on togetherness, equality along with empathy and understanding of acceptance and rejections, we will have a spate of such attacks on women,” he says.
India’s patriarchy is a defining factor behind such atrocious crimes. A boy is favorable in comparison to a girl, thus ingraining a superiority complex in men. This gender bias makes males feel like they are entitled – even if it is at the cost of ruining a person’s life.
“From childhood, men are considered to be like a gift, when children are raised in an environment where they see girls being treated differently from themselves simply cause they’re women, when they grow up and they come across a woman who doesn’t give him what he wants, he’s just not used to it,” Singh tells Newsweek Middle East.
Pakistan’s Senate unanimously approved the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill on December 12, 2010 and in May 2011, the bill was endorsed uncontested by Pakistan’s National Assembly. The punishment includes 14-year to lifetime imprisonment sentences and levies fines up to Rs1 million ($11,160) for the perpetrators of the crime. It took India another two years to approve a similar law related to acid attacks in April 2013. This came following the December 2012 gang-rape of a Delhi medical student in a moving bus.
“India is a very poor country. Majority of the people live under the poverty line…so they don’t really have time to concern themselves with social change… But when something like Delhi gang rape happens and someone dies because of the brutality and [considering] the background of the girl, everyone connects with her… That’s when people start thinking this could have been my daughter, could have been my son, and things go a little crazy and everyone just wants to get together,” explains Singh.
While more women are reporting their attacks, some are still holding back because they are often related to the survivors, or in fear of retribution or because they feel ashamed.
“Most of these crimes are committed by people the victim knows—a family member or someone she is having a relationship with. So, this compounds the problem and makes it difficult for them to report what is happening to them,” Devineni tells Newsweek Middle East.
Singh says that because women in rural areas lack resources to report the crime, the actual number of acid attack cases is unknown and is likely to be “much higher than the reported numbers.”
“In order to bring about change in those societies, it’s going to take years, decades perhaps,” Singh tells Newsweek Middle East.
In addition, the presumably ineffective legal framework means that victims often drop their cases because of delayed justice.
“The ridiculously slow pace at which the Indian judicial system works in dealing with these crimes encourages, in a way, the perpetrators to continue to be a danger to women, and society on the whole. Some survivors even drop the case because of how gruelling it can be,” Singh tells Newsweek Middle East.
As well, it is important for the patriarchal mind-set to change to reduce crimes against women. “We need to bring up our children in an equal and genderless world,” Iyer tells Newsweek Middle East.
With organisations like Make Love Not Scars and books like Priya’s Mirror, the conversation surrounding acid attacks is starting to change and people are beginning to see survivors in a different light.
Reshma Qureshi, the ambassador of Make Love Not Scars, walked the ramp at New York Fashion Week, “That was a fantastic experience for Reshma, and a great way to showcase to the world the strength and beauty of a survivor,” Singh says.
Sonia Choudhary is another one of Devineni’s inspirations. She had attempted suicide following her attack, but she now runs a beauty salon. For Choudhary, the message that ‘beauty is only skin deep’ runs deeper.
“I have now understood that beauty is not on the face but on the inside. Clients come and they say I want a look like this or a look like that and I do it for them…but once they remove their makeup, they will be back to how they were. But what you are on the inside will be the same today, tomorrow and forever. This is what I have learned, that the inside has to be beautiful, not what’s on the face,” she says.