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Politics Of Beauty And Deformation: How The Acid Attack Survivors Redefine Patriarchal Meaning Of ‘Beautiful’

Roopa, Ritu, Anshu and many of their friends have changed the meaning of beauty by coming out in public and challenging the normative patriarchal notion that beauty lies in the ‘face’. Their resilience redefine social ‘gaze’ to look at the world.

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Acid Attack Survivors Moushumi, Roopa, Anshu and Ritu in front of Sheroes Cafe, Noida
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In August, 2015 Reshma Bano Qureshi uploaded a You Tube video titled,  Beauty tips by Reshma: How to get perfect red lips . The video while was as simple as any other beauty tutorial video available online, what makes the difference is Reshma's identity and her appeal. An acid attack survivor Reshma, then 18, appealed to the people towards the end of the video to stop open acid selling. She signs off the video with, “You will find red lipstick very easily anywhere, just like acid. This is the reason everyday someone is becoming the victim of acid attack. 

Reshma through her bold appeal hits out at the core social prejudices over the notion of beauty. In several of the reported cases, the researches show, the motive of the attacker happens to be the deformation of women's face that may reduce her prospects of getting married.  

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The recent incident of Delhi where the 17 years old girl had been attacked by her friend with whom she had fallen out a few days back shows how the idea of ​​masculine revenge is connected to deforming the women body that in a patriarchal set up is considered sanctity sanctorum—the civilizational honor that men are entitled to protect. The notion of a particular kind of beauty when dominates the discourse and is considered to add value to the women's lives in societal perception, acid attacks and consequent deformation becomes a way to 'punish' her disobedience and transgression.  

Shivani Goswami and Rakesh Kumar Handa in their 2020 paper titled  The Peril of Acid Attacks in India and Susceptibility of Women published in  Journal of Victimology and Victim Justice  note, “The purpose of the person is to deface, injure and torture another person throughout his/ her life. The aim of the committer is not to kill the victim but to make him/her endure throughout his/her life—to leave a permanent, indelible impact on the victim, physically as well psychologically."  

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This purpose of the attackers certainly fails when a Reshma or a Roopa stands up and vocally expresses herself, not as a victim, rather as a survivor with unbelievable resilience and perseverance. In some instances, even the attacker becomes the dependent of the survivors—an instance what Alok Dixit, the founder of Chhanv foundation and Sheroes café, calls "social justice."  

In late 90s in Agra, a father threw acid on his wife and two daughters, while the younger daughter died immediately, the older one Neetu survived, but only with blindness. Her mother Geeta also suffered severe burn injuries. However, their story of resilience made them the face of acid attack survivors in the state.

Akhilesh Yadav, then the CM of the UP in 2014 met both Neetu and Geeta at Sheroes café, that Alok started with an objective to empower the acid attack survivors. Sheroes café now have three branches in Agra, Lucknow and Noida and employ more than 25 acid attack survivors across the cities. While the complaint had been lodged and Neetu's father was arrested, social pressure to withdraw the FIR made him release within a year. But, “now he is more than 70 years old and totally dependent on Neetu and Geeta,” says Alok. “This is what social justice means. People now know Neetu-Geeta- they have their jobs, bank balance and are taking care of the attacker who wanted to spoil their lives," Alok adds.  

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Alok founded the 'Stop Acid Attack' campaign in 2013 and gradually started getting the support of the acid attack survivors in the very initial days. This was the same time when Supreme Court gave its verdict forcing the government to pass binding regulations to ban undeterred acid sale.  

However, the regulations hardly got implemented and as Atul Yadav, a Noida-based social activist, who has started his campaign to stop open acid sell, tells Outlook, “On our first day, we have found 20 shops selling acids openly. And they are not even asking for the id card or any other proof. In some shops, bottles are even sold at Rs. 10.”  

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The implementation of the SC verdict and the government regulations notwithstanding, the major motto of Stop Acid Attack campaign became the restoration of dignified lives for the survivors. “If you remember, a few acid attack survivors who had access to social media used to put the photos of celebrities as the profile pictures. Our campaign was a bit successful in this regard as this made them empowered and they came out openly to public and shared their stories,” says Alok.  

However, he is not ready to accept that it is only a gender-based issue. “Recent data shows that the acid attacks on men have also increased. It is now being used for burglary, revenge and several other purposes. It is not to say that the domineering masculinity is not the cause but to eradicate the menace we have to hit the root of it and that is the acid sell,” adds the activist whose Sheroes café chain has become one of the prominent rehabilitations for the acid attack survivors.   

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Sheroes Cafe of Chhanv foundation run by Acid Attack survivors Photo: Souvik Manna

Is the imposition of total ban on acid sell possible? Alok who started his journey from Kanpur and roamed around different parts of the country says, “it’s difficult.” In the rural area, toilets are made of cement and the market products like Harpic mostly clean the tiles. “As the number of toilets in the rural area in recent past have increased, the use of acid also got a new life. On one hand, Harpic is extremely costly, on the other it is not worthy enough to clean the rural type toilet pots those are made of cement,” says Alok.  

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Social activist Atul Yadav and his friends nevertheless have other plans. “People can use alternative of Harpic. In market there are cheap toilet cleaners with less acidic intensity. Whatever the reason may be, the open sell of acid without any regulation is offence and we will not let it happen,” Atul tells Outlook.  

While the banning of open acid sell is one part of the story, the other part lies in the empowerment of the acid attack survivors and the changing of the concept of beauty. As Alok says that from the very early days it was her objective that he would contribute to a condition where the survivors would uncover their faces without any social stigma. This objective perhaps drove them to come up with the calendar that showcased the acid attack survivors as models wearing colourful clothes.  

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“In 2014 we started a crowdfunding campaign and one photographer was working with us. The crowdfunding actually started for Roopa, an acid attack survivor who wanted to start a boutique. Survivors then wore Roopa’s designed clothes and we clicked their photos. As it was placed in social media, it went viral,” Alok says. Then they decided to collect the photos and made a calendar that represented the desires of the women prior to their attacks. In several ways it changed the meaning of beauty and its representation.  

For Roopa, it was a moment to showcase her works as well. While talking to Outlook, Roopa said, “I made red dress for my friend Ritu who was attacked wearing a red dress. On that Al Jazeera also made a documentary namely Black Roses and Red Dresses. We actually wrote letters to our attackers and attached a black rose with it. We wanted to write to them that how the incident actually changed our life.”  

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Roopa, who was attacked by her stepmother at the age of 13 said that she never expected that her life would be changed in such a way. “Now, people know us. We are much confident now. So many works we do a day. We don’t know what our life otherwise would have been without Sheroes café and the support of media and others.”  

Anshu, whose 55 years’ old neighbour whom she called ‘Dada ji’ threw acid at her while she was on her way to school, tells Outlook, “When I first went to Agra Sheroes and saw that I was not the only one who suffered such gruesome attack, I explored the reality in a different manner. For the first time since the attack, I uncovered my face and got the confidence to come out in public.”  

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Such instances were found in Alok’s words as well. “When I went to meet Shabnam, another survivor in Aligarh, one of her neighbours of the same age group came and asked me whether she can join us. She said that Shabnam’s life has been changed and she also wanted such a life,” says Alok.  

However, even after such exposures, “they cover their faces in their own localities as the social stigma is still high,” adds the founder of Sheroes.  

While talking about the idea of beauty, Roopa was very clear. “Beauty lies in the hearts, not the face. The way you talk to the people, you treat people at the margins show your beauty,” says the survivor who has a plan to start a boutique soon. 

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As I was leaving Sheroes café with the new definition of beauty, I recalled how Ludwig Wittgenstein once defined beauty. Comparing the beauty of eyes and a Gothic church, he asked, “What do these eyes have in common with a gothic church that I find beautiful too? Should I say they make a similar impression on me? What if I were to say that in both cases my hand feels tempted to draw them?”  

Beauty is all about those things that tempt you to express – it is a collective essence that is shared and imitated. The beauty of Roopa, Anshu, Ritu and others lie there, not in the patriarchal gaze that wants media-determined 'perfection' of woman body in the post-commercial world.  

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