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Scarred survivors

Even though the sale of acid is banned in the capital, it continues to serve as a weapon for men who refuse to accept rejection. More than an expression of their anger, it is an expression of their toxic masculinity

My cousin paid K1,25,000 to scar me for life. Maine sapne mein bhi nai socha tha ki mera hi bhai mere saath aisa krrega (Not even in my dreams, did I ever think that my cousin would do this),” says Ritu, an acid attack survivor. She was five minutes from her house when two bike-borne men threw acid on her face and sped away. “I could not open my eyes. I could feel my face burning,” she says. For one month she could not see anything and now she is blind from her left eye.

“What was my mistake?” she still wonders. Ritu’s cousin had been stalking her since a long time. When she was just 17 years old, he had propositioned her, saying he would have eloped with her had she not been his sister. “Meri bua ka beta hai woh (He is my bua’s son) I was 22 years younger to him then but he was adamant on marrying me,” she says, adding, “In the police investigation, it was revealed that he had been planning the attack for three months.” Such was his desperation to destroy her life, only because she refused his proposal.

With patriarchy so deep-rooted in our society that it manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, men still don’t know how to take no for an answer. “I would never hurt someone I love. How can that be love? It is just madness,” she says. Ritu feels that it all comes down to the mentality, which is directly related to upbringing — to what boys are taught at schools and in their homes.

Every year in India, at least 200 to 300 cases of acid attacks are reported, with many going unreported. Among these, a common pattern can be seen. Be it rejecting a marriage proposal or saying no to sexual advances or lying in a relationship, the underlying psychological affect remains the same — How dare ‘she’ say ‘no’ to me? How dare she cheat on me?

Last week in Ghaziabad, a woman was attacked with acid by a man who she allegedly had an extra marital affair with. The man confessed to the police that the woman had not told him about her marriage. This was all it took for him to become a criminal and destroy her life. Two men have been arrested and the condition of the victim, who suffered 40% burns, is still critical.

Feminist Kamla Bhasin, a prominent face of the One Billion Rising movement, substantiates this further. “It is a manifestation of our patriarchal mindset which is present in every little thing that we do in our day-to-day lives. Parents are also responsible for ingraining in their sons an attitude that makes them the protectors of the honour that resides in the females of the house,” she says, giving an insight into the condition of the Indian society that still sees men in a dominant position.

“It is the difference in the position. They see women as inferior, so how can this inferior gender have the power to reject a man? Woh sochte hai ki college chali gayi, padh likh li toh mujhe attitude dikhaayegi? They want you to remain subordinate to them so that they can impose their patriarchal attitude on you. We all end up doing this in our homes with our sons or brothers, teaching them that they have a power that women don’t have,” she adds.

Ritu too agrees that parental upbringing has a huge role to play in cases like these where men display their irrational ego and superiority. “This only happens because their ego gets hurt when you say no to them. If they want something, they will make sure that they get it. Again, here parents can be held responsible equally because they are the ones who never say no to the demands of their son since childhood,” she says.

On being asked what can be done to bring about a change, she says, “The mentality, the thinking, the approach — it’s all flawed and needs to be amended. I will not say that all men are the same because if one brother hurt me, my real brother is now making every effort possible to support me. I am the youngest in my family and all my brothers, along with my parents have been supportive throughout my struggle.”

Ritu wished to die when she was in hospital recuperating. Now that the three men — including her cousin and the two men who were paid to throw acid — have been imprisoned for life, she says that she has learnt that one needs to move on in life and not let the anger poison the mind, so she has forgiven him. “My bua (cousin’s mother) never came to visit me in the hospital. There has been no support from their end as if they still do not realise what their son has done to me. This again reflects how the society is conditioned to never accept that men can be wrong. It is always the girl’s fault,” she says.

Asks her what she misses the most and pat comes the reply, “Volleyball! Whenever I see children playing in the park, I feel like going out to play.” Ritu was a state-level volleyball player before this incident crushed her dreams.

“Initially, I used to cover my face before going out in public but now I have got used to the scars. It is no longer my facial scars that affect me but the fact that I could not pursue my dream of playing is what hurts me the most,” she adds. Ritu worked for two years at Sheroes Hangout, a Noida café managed by acid attack survivors, and is now working at their office. “The harshest punishment for him will be my smile — if I smile and continue to live my life with positivity, his purpose will be defeated,” she says, displaying her fortitude even after her ordeal and the 15 surgeries she underwent.

“They are not lovers, they are obsessed men who treat a girl like a commodity or trophy that they want to attain at any cost,” says Anshu. In 2014, when she was in Class 10, a 55-year-old man who was her neighbour, propositioned her. She went and told her parents who had an altercation with the man’s family. The public humiliation that he faced after that fight enraged him so much that he jumped over the boundary of his house to Anshu’s house at night, while everyone was asleep on the terrace and threw acid on her.

Her left eye was damaged completely and her right eye still lacks proper vision. She has undergone three operations since then. “More than my face, I had trouble with my vision. I could not see for seven months, adapting to that was the most difficult thing but my parents supported me a lot,” she says.
Anshu’s family removed all the mirrors from the house after she regained a little of her sight. “I requested them several times but no one showed me a mirror. One day I caught my reflection in a bowl of water. I cried for hours at a stretch but I knew I had to muster all my courage and begin a new life,” she adds.

In the beginning, Anshu was too scared to uncover her face but later she became comfortable with going out in the open without covering her face when she met several such women associated with the Stop Acid Attacks Foundation, an NGO working for acid attack survivors. The founders of the NGO, Alok Dikshit and Ashish Shukla, have been helping her tremendously.

“Despite all the financial assistance and the government aid of K5 lakh, my treatment is ongoing and is very expensive — one injection costs around K6,000,” she says. Anshu too blames male mindsets for whatever happened to her. “He is such an old man and has two sons. How could he even think of me? The most absurd part was that his family, including his wife, defended his actions.”

Shaina was attacked with acid in 2009 for the same predictable reason — rejecting the marriage proposal of a man, as she had other goals in life. In her last surgery, her ear was grafted and the doctors detached her neck from the cheek, which made movement easier. With a family of eight, her medical expenses are burning a hole in their pocket but her never-say-die attitude can instil hope in anyone she talks to.

“I was alone in the room when my sister’s brother-in-law came with a coffee mug that had acid in it. He splashed in on my face. At first, I could not understand what it was, so I started shouting that he threw coffee on my face. My Jijaji hugged me while I was crying, then he realised that it was acid, which also burnt his chest a little,” says Rukhaiya, another acid attack survivor who was attacked in 2002 when she was 14 years old.

The man who was 20 years old then, had been torturing her after she declined his marriage proposal. “Not just me, but our entire family was against the marriage, even my Jijaji,” she says. When he was about to throw acid on her face, he told her that if she could not be his wife, he would not let her become anyone else’s either.

She did marry and have a son later. “It took me a long time before I could begin to trust men again and when I did, I ended up being disappointed again as my husband reinforced gender inequality,” says Rukhaiya, who no longer stays with her husband.

Back then she had no support from her family to register a complaint. So, the perpetrator is now married and is leading a normal life in Delhi. “What happened to the crazy love now?” she questions. But now that she has become stronger and more independent, she wants to file a case against him. “When I went to the police station, they told me that my case is old now. I have written to the PM and hope for remedial action against him,” she says.

Rukhaiya has a son who keeps asking her about her scars, “When I take him to Sheroes, he sees women like me and asks what went wrong. After what happened to me, I want to instil in him respect for women.”

Acid attack survivor and social activist Laxmi Agarwal is now working to rehabilitate other such survivors. At the age of 15, she was attacked by her stalker when she rejected his marriage proposal.

“Every crime against women originates from the same reason — the mentality of the people, not just of men but also of women,” says Bhasin. There are many such stories of pain and endurance that make us wonder how we can ever get rid of this toxic masculinity. As Anshu rightly says, “He threw acid on my face but not on my soul. It burnt my face but ignited my spirit.”