When catwalk model Reshma Qureshi offers makeup tips, her online tutorials end with the message that an eyeliner or lipstick is just as easy to buy in India as a pot of over-the-counter acid. The point, coming from a woman who was left disfigured and partially sighted by an acid attack, has already proved so powerful that it has helped lead first to an international petition, and then to the supreme court of India ordering states to enforce the ban on sales of the chemical. However, despite the attention given to her own story and to the plight of thousands like her, Qureshi says the epidemic of acid attacks in India continues unabated, and the legal system lags far behind public opinion in dealing with cases. “The only arrest made in my case could receive bail soon, and my family is very afraid for our safety,” says Qureshi, who is from Allahabad, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “On 19 May 2014, my brother-in-law threw acid on my face,” Qureshi tells the Guardian. She was just 17 when she and her sister were attacked. The older woman suffered minor burns but Qureshi was left badly scarred and blinded in her left eye. Despite the milestones she’s achieved – including fashion modelling – Qureshi’s struggles are far from over. After years of legal battle, Qureshi has still not received justice. Of the three men involved in the attack, only one was arrested. The trial is still ongoing. Her experience is far from isolated.
The most recent statistics from India’s National Crimes Record Bureau record 283 reported acid attacks, with 307 casualties, in 2015. Worldwide, thousands of acid attacks take place every year. Official figures show only a fraction of the actual number of such attacks, activists say, with “thousands of the cases” going unreported. Most survivors are attacked by relatives, making it more common that the crime is not reported outside the family. Tania Singh, an activist and CEO of Make Love Not Scars, an organisation that helps survivors of acid attacks, says many others die from their injuries before they are able to go to the police. Qureshi’s struggle not just to get medical help, but also legal support, lays bare the apathy of the Indian system towards survivors of violence, she says. “The doctors wouldn’t treat my burns till we got a police complaint registered. It was six hours before I received any help. I just lay there screaming in pain. “Eventually, when the court was hearing my case, I was called as a witness while I was in surgery. Despite my father’s pleas, they insisted I be present, or else the attacker would be let go. How is that fair?” Singh says more courts and judges are needed to expedite such cases. “The backlog of cases in India is massive; we have survivors who were attacked 10 years ago and haven’t seen justice, their attackers are absconding. The decision needs to come faster, swifter and harder.”
Currently, the crime is punishable with up to 10 years in prison, but conviction rates are low. “In at least 40% of the cases, the attackers remain absconding,” says Singh. “Our laws are actually very good – solid laws, such that other countries could learn from our laws. The problem lies with implementation… It is very easy to pass a law, it is very difficult to implement it.” While her organisation helps survivors find pro-bono assistance, and covers some of their legal fees, the financial burden of such an attack is still crippling, says Singh. “Reshma’s parents had to sell their business and ancestral home to pay for her treatments and legal costs.” Qureshi now lives with other survivors at the Make Love Not Scars shelter in Delhi. “Apart from a safe space, we also provide survivors psychological care, medical attention, help with their surgeries, post-operative care, funding [for] their children’s education, and help to become productive members of society,” says Singh. “However, the biggest challenge we face is the lack of belief survivors have in themselves. Society has put [the idea] in their minds that their lives are over. To convince them otherwise can be very hard sometimes.”
The organisation provides support and vocational training to survivors, including Qureshi, whose videos entitled “Beauty Tips by Reshma” have been hugely successful, putting a spotlight on the problem of violence against women. “I have always loved applying makeup, but I quit after my attack,” she says. “I would see other women who were all made-up and wished I could also do that. Then I asked myself, why couldn’t I do it? That attack ruined everything in my life. Your face is everything in this world, your face is considered your most important identity,” she says. “The man who attacked me, he thought this would ruin me. ‘She won’t be able to do anything and she’ll die.’ But I won’t let that happen. I won’t give him the satisfaction – I will show him how I can live and move forward. The next thing I want to do is be in a movie about my life, and to play myself.” Singh says many survivors are now pursuing careers they previously thought out of reach. “It is also what we strive to instil in all our survivors that you should be the best version of yourself. Let no one make you feel otherwise. We have a few survivors who work in the high court, another who works in a hospital – because people should be free to follow their dreams in whatever way possible.”
Credit: Ruchi Kumar for The Guardian, 2 April 2019.