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Rupa Saa, left, and Ritu Saini: The survivors of acid attacks work at Sheroes Hangout, a cafe in Agra, India. (Amrit Dhillon for The Globe and Mail)
Rupa Saa, left, and Ritu Saini: The survivors of acid attacks work at Sheroes Hangout, a cafe in Agra, India. (Amrit Dhillon for The Globe and Mail)

Survivors of acid attacks reject seclusion Add to ...

For seven years, Rupa Saa left home only to go to hospital for surgery. She has had 13 operations, so 13 trips during which she kept her face wrapped in a scarf, leaving a slit for the eyes. At home, she kept her face covered and, during mealtimes, passed food from the plate to her mouth, underneath the scarf, for fear of repulsing her family.

Her mouth, lips, cheeks, nose, chest and shoulders had dissolved from burns the day her stepmother poured acid on her while she slept at her home in Kandla, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. She was 15. Her disfigurement left her ashamed.

But on Valentine’s Day in Sheroes Hangout, a café in Agra where she works with other survivors, Ms. Saa relished a breakfast of buttered toast, dipped in ketchup, with her face uncovered.

Ms. Saa was the victim of an acid attack, horrific assaults on women by attackers who claim to be punishing them for property disputes or claiming to be jealous, angry at a wife’s failure to produce sons or upset at being rejected.

Anti-violence advocates estimate about 1,000 acid attacks take place every year in India.

“This need for revenge arises from frustration at a woman not submitting herself to a man’s will. It’s the reflex of a patriarchal culture and the frustration is getting worse as Indian women demand equality and the freedom to make their own choices,” psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar said.

Many survivors of acid attacks withdraw into seclusion, as Ms. Saa first did. Often, relatives and friends vanish. Many survivors can’t get jobs.

Two years ago, Alok Dixit, a journalist turned activist, set up Stop Acid Attacks, a Delhi-based NGO with the mission of helping victims find work and build support networks.

“They felt totally alone, demoralized and depressed. They were sealed inside their pain,” said Mr. Dixit, a soft-spoken 26-year-old from a conventional upper-caste Hindu family.

Mr. Dixit’s inspiration was an acid-attack survivor called Laxmi (who goes by only one name). He met her while interviewing her for an article and they fell in love. He incurred paternal wrath – and disinheritance – by living with her.

Laxmi had refused to confine herself to the house or cover her face after a man whose advances she spurned threw acid on her in a Delhi market in 2005. It melted her face and neck and she needed a dozen operations to reconstruct her features.

She launched a campaign in the courts to force the government to ban the sale of acid without a special permit. In 2013, she won a huge victory when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of her demand.

Laxmi, and her refusal to let her assailant deprive her of a normal life, was an important role model for other victims. Mr. Dixit’s NGO brought survivors together and, when he opened Sheroes Hangout in December, it provided them with jobs and further opportunity to socialize.

On seeing Laxmi’s courage, Ms. Saa threw away her scarf. The 22-year-old now lives in Agra and works at the café. “My life changed that day I saw Laxmi. Her face was uncovered. When I met other survivors in the office, I felt a sense of relief. I realized I wasn’t alone; there were people in the world who could understand me.”

The women at Sheroes Hangout said that coming together has given them new strength and confidence to deal with the stares and ostracism of society.

“Why should I hide myself away when I’m not the one who did any wrong?” asked 30-year-old Sonia Choudhury who used to work at a beauty parlour in Ghaziabad, a town close to the Indian capital. In 2004, a neighbour paid two men to fling acid on her face after a petty dispute.

Despite the ravages to her face and the loss of an eye, she now runs a beauty parlour from her home. She visited the Agra café on Feb. 14 to help with a Valentine Day’s candle-lit dinner. The women laughed and joked as they decorated the place with hearts and balloons.

Coincidentally, the café is just 400 metres from the Taj Mahal, a monument to true love built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to honour his wife.

Elsewhere, other Indian women are also reclaiming their lives and dreams after acid attacks. Monica Singh, 29, fulfilled her desire to study fashion design at Parsons School for Design in New York. She left for the United States last year, having endured 43 operations for the burns she suffered to 75 per cent of her body.

“Why should I let the man who ruined my life determine my future too?” Ms. Singh said on the phone from New York.

India changes very slowly. But some young men, sickened by violence against women, including acid attacks and the brutal gang rape and fatal assault of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in 2012, are trying to change male attitudes. A Delhi group, whose campaign is called Be a Man, urges respect for women.

Members of the group arrived at Sheroes Hangout on Valentine’s Day to hold a self-defence workshop.

Sadly, the techniques they illustrated came too late for the women at the café. But the young men were wholesome and earnest, and soon their visit to the Agra café turned into an impromptu party when they played Bollywood songs and invited the women to dance.

These men provide a glimmer of a new India that is emerging to counter a patriarchal culture in which women’s primary function is to marry, bear sons and be obedient. Since the 2012 gang rape, a debate has been raging about the high levels of sexual violence against women – 93 rapes every day according to last year’s official statistics – and how India needs to change.

Ms. Saa can detect this glimmer when she visits Delhi and travels on the metro. Some people still stare. “But sometimes people give me a hug and take selfies with me,” she said.

And Ajay Verma, an Agra tour guide, does his bit when he brings British tourists to Sheroes Hangout for a coffee. “I have to support the café,” he said. “That’s the least I can do for these women who have shown more courage than most of us, thank God, will ever have to.”

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