HANGING OUT WITH SHEROES
This essay, by Carol Bowman, would have been submitted to our (currently postponed) 2017 Essay Contest. A serendipitous slip-up connected us---first by phone, then by eMail. With the author's permission, we publish it here…....Perhaps it will help create and spread awareness of this horrific issue. One wonders (I wonder) about how the inhumanity of our fellow humans continues to collide with the super-humanity of enlightened, forgiving sisters and brothers in our complicated world. --Linda Durham
HANGING OUT WITH SHEROES
the acid victims of India
by Carol Bowman
She moved quietly among the patrons handing each a list of food and drink offerings, but the menu had no prices. Her hair bravely pulled back, revealed cheek and neck tissues furrowed with deep scars and depigmented skin riddled with blotches of dark and light. Her reconstructed lip quivered in a valiant attempt to smile. Determination and a fragile hope strained from her eyes, one askew and not in balance with the other. I tried to look beyond her horror and tried not to show mine. Her name is Rupa, an acid attack survivor. She calls herself ‘a courageous fighter who walks with scars’, but others refer to her as a s/hero, a hero with an ‘S’.
Our introduction to this sickening practice of acid attack, defined as throwing sulfuric acid or a similarly corrosive substance on the body and face of another with the intention to disfigure, maim, torture or kill, came at S/heroes Hangout in Agra, India.
A 2014 initiative of Stop Acid Attacks and the Chhanv Foundation, this intimate café, the first of its kind in this fiercely patriarchal country, is operated by five women who survived acid attacks.
Intentionally located within the shadows of the Taj Mahal, the founders hope to draw energy from the world’s renowned testament of love. For me, that edifice of cold stone and marble means little compared to the courage that emanates from this wildly painted space. Here living tissue that has been singed attempts to glow again and women ravaged because they are women learn to fight back.
Geeta, another survivor whose dream of being a chef has been realized at S/heroes, prepared the munchies we ordered. Her drunken husband threw acid on not only her but her two daughters because she hadn’t given him a son. Her baby girl died from the attack; her other daughter, Neetu now 24, has been permanently blinded since age 3.
The initial shock of this emotional setting subsided as I concentrated on Rupa’s story. Her duties as assistant manager include showing patrons a short documentary film and educating the customers about the goals of the café which go beyond serving food and drink. An extensive library of feminist empowerment books line the shelved walls and the two-story building acts as a hub of activism workshops and community radio talks against acid attacks. The Hangout offers employment for survivors, who otherwise are shunned and isolated from society, trains young girls to use social media as an outreach tool and creates a space for display and sale of items crafted by these unsung ‘Sheroes.’
Females between the ages of 10-30 are the usual targets of acid attacks and the perpetrators almost 100% male. What made Rupa’s assault unfathomable is that her stepmother was the acid thrower. Unable to tolerate Rupa’s physical resemblance to her beautiful mother who had died when Rupa was a child, the stepmother threw acid on her so the resemblance would be no more. “I wish I would have died right then,” said Rupa, “because surviving is worse than death.” Rupa’s voice quivered as she repeated this story told thousands of times and yet each utterance must feel like the first, reliving that unspeakable moment.
“The café has changed my life and made me realize that the attack was not the end. I had always dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. After my face was destroyed, I knew it would never be,” Rupa said. She looked proudly at the rack of designer dresses hanging in a small alcove behind the tables. “But thanks to Sheroes, my fashion collection is now for sale.” Not a person stirred, not a sound made, not a dry eye.
India ranks second in the world behind Bangladesh with the highest incidence of acid attacks; a disgusting mark of distinction.
A liter of sulfuric acid can be bought at any motorcycle shop for a few rupees, about 40 cents US. A small amount of concentrated corrosive liquid can dissolve bones, cast out eyes, destroy ear cartilage, lips, and noses; facial skin is eaten away. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court ordered private hospitals to provide free medical care and reconstructive surgeries to acid attack survivors. New laws require merchants to obtain ID information on persons buying corrosive acids and India’s penal code added acid attack as a separate offense with a punishment of up to 10 years in jail.
But unlike Bangladesh, where the number of attacks seems to be diminishing, there are no signs of slowing in India. Many offenses that take place in the isolated countryside go unreported. Although female infanticide is decreasing, births of baby girls often never get registered. It is possible that their deaths could go unrecorded as well. Despite the new law of ID to purchase acid, the ramshackle motorcycle lean-tos that I saw set up along the highways have no accounting system of sales receipts and records of purchase seems unfeasible.
Revenge stands out as the primary reason for these barbaric acts. Three likely scenarios include a woman rejecting a man’s sexual advances, a wife who has not produced male offspring, or rejection of the proposed husband in an arranged marriage. In India, the concept of dowry paid by the girl’s parents to the groom’s family remains an absolute condition of matrimony. Throwing acid on the bride could be the punishment for failure to pay the dowry demanded. Acid attacks have even been reported as retaliation for land disputes or the innocent request of a girl wanting to attend school.
Time for our visit to Sheroes Hangout to end, we solicited Rupa for our food and drink bills. She set a small, empty reed basket on the table. “Our policy is ‘pay as-you wish’. The cost is what you think the food was worth,” Rupa said.
What’s the value of disfigurement, despair, and depression? What price do you put on a young woman’s life, her self- esteem, her hopes and dreams stripped away in an instant with a splash of acid?
The basket soon filled-up with compassion as Rupa’s customers offered ten times or more the value of the food consumed.
Before leaving, I hugged Rupa. Our faces touched and I felt my skin, smoothed by opportunity and privilege brush against her sunken rippled cheekbone, ravaged by inequality and revenge. I felt sickened that someone who claimed to be human had inflicted such inhumane suffering on this brave girl.
I was honored to mingle with these courageous fighters who walk with scars. I felt guilt knowing I was returning to my gleaming five-star palace hotel, while Rupa would never know such comfort.
As we left this space of inspiration and stepped into the brutal Agra sun and 115◦ heat, I looked back for one more glimpse. Another group of patrons took the seats we had just vacated. Rupa moved quietly around the table handing out the Sheroes Hangout menus that had no prices.
This woman has overcome her trauma to the point that she is now a model, and has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show
Rupa reflects on her thoughts before addressing the café patrons about surviving her attack