Reshma Qureshi was just 17 and on her way to a school exam when a group of men threw acid on her face.
-About 300 acid attacks are reported in India each year
-Survivor advocates say the number of attacks is probably close to 1,000
-India has the highest incidence of acid attacks in the world
Her older sister’s abusive husband and two of his relatives were behind the attack.
“I had not even heard of acid attacks before,” said Ms Qureshi, now 23.
“I came to know that there are many acid attack victims in India after I got attacked.”
Ms Qureshi refuses to hide her face the way many acid victims in India are expected to.
Instead she is an advocate for fellow victims.
Ms Qureshi has released beauty vlogs, teaching survivors how to do the perfect cat eye and red lip — while also raising awareness about the scourge of acid attacks.
She was invited to model at New York Fashion Week in 2016 and has published a memoir.
But despite her brush with the world of high fashion, she still doesn’t have what she really wants: a job.
“Here in India people react differently if I walk on the street without covering my face. They ask questions, stare at you and talk badly,” she said.”
“In the US people always smile at you. They never ask what happened to you, your face.”
Ms Qureshi said many acid victims were attacked by their own husbands and needed to support their children.
“I appeal to companies to give them jobs. Do not reject them because of their disfigured faces,” she said.
Women find acceptance in survivors’ sanctuary
Ms Qureshi now works with a charity offering accommodation, support and legal advice to acid victims in New Delhi.
Make Love, Not Scars runs a shelter home for women whose lives have been destroyed by a crime that is on the rise in India.
About 300 cases are reported each year, but the real figure is probably closer to 1,000 according to Tania Singh, the CEO of Make Love, Not Scars.
The number of attacks is rising steadily in India.
“This could mean two things; number one that people are feeling braver and stronger and they come out and report the crime,” Ms Singh said.
“Or number two, that more potential attackers are getting influenced, learning about acid and committing the crime.”
In neighbouring Bangladesh, in contrast, acid attacks have decreased since new laws restricted the sale of common chemicals and the death penalty was introduced for attackers.
The glacial pace of India’s legal system means even when attackers are charged, it can take between five and 10 years for a conviction.
“I don’t see signs of it slowing down. As long as acid is easily available I only see it increasing,” said Ms Singh.
‘I am the only one who is actually punished’
Ms Singh said many of the acid victims who came to the shelter were attacked by the people closest to them.
Soni Devi was on the verge of becoming a police officer when she was doused with acid.
The 21-year-old had a gun licence and an acceptance letter to join the local police force.
But her parents had arranged for her to get married.
“In India when you get married, you have to live with your husband and his parents. So she went and joined his family, and the abuse just started,” Ms Singh said.
Her husband and his parents demanded more dowry money, beyond what had already been agreed to at her wedding.
Her mother-in-law would wake her up at all hours to cook and clean, treating her like a slave.
She said they accused her of wasting money. Her mother-in-law would hit her for using too much dishwashing soap.
Her husband cut her hair off while she was asleep, as punishment for using too much shampoo.
In 2008, her husband and his parents held her down and poured acid all over her face.
“This is how I look now after 16 surgeries. Earlier it was really bad,” she said, touching rivulets of raised flesh on her face and neck.”
Instead, Ms Devi spent the next 10 years mostly inside her mother’s house, locked inside a room whenever guests came over for fear of scaring them with her disfigured face.
“I was in complete state of despair at that time, I was even thinking of ending my life,” she said.
She tried to get a job but was always rejected because of her looks.
“When I got rejected by employers I decided to go to college for higher studies,” she said.
“I went to three or four colleges but again got rejected. They told me that my presence could affect their college’s reputation.”
‘He wants to make sure no-one else can have her’
Eventually Ms Devi left her village in Uttar Pradesh for New Delhi to live in the facility.
She has made great leaps in her life since she was attacked and lost her dream of joining the police force.
She now works at the acid victims’ shelter in Delhi, earning a living as an administrator.
But her husband has not been punished.
“I have been fighting my case since 2008. A court found my attacker guilty and handed over seven years of imprisonment. But he is out on bail, roaming freely,” Ms Devi said.
“I am the one who is actually punished. I am facing social exclusion, harassment and torture.”
Tania Singh said women were often seen as somehow responsible for their own assault
“In India we are such a patriarchal society, we don’t really have healthy relationship between men and women because boys and girls are not allowed to interact normally when they are younger,” she said.
She said more Indian men need to understand consent.
“If he wants a woman and she does not fit his ideal desire of what a woman should be, or if she tries to leave him, then he attacks her with acid,” she said.
“Because he can’t have her, so he wants to make sure that no-one else can have her.”