In Agra, a stone’s throw from the Taj Mahal, a group of women are refusing to hide.
31-year-old Raukaiya is holding a tiny compact mirror up to her face. With shiny hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, she looks intently at her reflection, and fixedly wipes off a smudge of thick black eyeliner. Not content, she gets up and walks over to a bigger mirror which stretches from ceiling to floor. Here she looks more closely at her left eye, pulls out a string of sleep gunk and steps back. Again she considers her reflection, smiles and walks off.
To a bystander, it’s looks insignificant – you’d barely notice – but for Raukaiya it’s an extremely powerful gesture.
In 2002, a man – her sister’s brother-in-law – chucked acid on her face. Aged 15, she had rejected his marriage proposal. The acid disfigured the left side of her face and neck. For years, she didn’t leave her house. She refused to drink water and hid in the kitchen when anyone came over.
So, 16 years later, to look in the mirror and smile? To actually like what she sees? That’s a truly remarkable change.
‘I kept fighting,’ she says. ‘I didn’t recognise myself anymore but then I found Sheroes.’
Close to the Taj Mahal in Agra, north India, is a café called Sheroes Hangout. Raukaiya is one of seven women who work as chefs or waitresses serving hot drinks and food.
But the female staff have one thing in common: they’ve all survived brutal acid attacks.
It’s lunchtime on a scorching hot day (the thermostat is pushing 42 degrees) and the four women on shift today sit round a table laughing and joking. Posters of female survivors line the café’s walls; each displays the face of a woman, her name, and the date she was attacked.
In one corner, t-shirts that read ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ and ‘My beauty is my smile’ are for sale. Founded in 2014 by Stop Acid Attacks, a New Delhi-based non-profit, Sheroes aims to create awareness of acid attacks and to boost confidence in survivors. The women receive counselling and are encouraged to talk about what happened with customers to reduce stigma.
When the café opened in 2014, most of the women hadn’t been out in public for years. If they did, they’d cover their faces. Not only did the acid melt Raukaiya’s skin – she had four facial reconstructive surgeries – it also destroyed her confidence.
‘I had always dreamed of starting a boutique,’ she explains. ‘I really enjoyed sewing. But after the attack I just stopped going out. I stopped speaking to everyone. So my dream stayed in my heart.’
The majority of acid victims are women. They’re often attacked by male stalkers, jilted lovers, relatives or fathers. Whatever the reason, they’re usually premeditated and aimed at the face. The goal? Long-term damage.
‘These people are so cruel,’ explains 23-year-old Bala. On 12 May, 2012, she was attacked by her parents’ employer after a dispute. ‘A woman’s face is the most essential aspect of her beauty – they think the girl will sit at home and no one will marry her.’
When Bala first came to Sheroes she was ‘very shy’ – to date, she’s had seven facial surgeries – but things are different now. She’s since learnt to read and write and has picked up English from the many tourists who visit the café. Not only that, she’s more comfortable in her own skin: ‘I realised what happened wasn’t my fault. And I don’t cover my face as I walk anymore.’