A video campaign and similar efforts are trying to limit the sale of acid and other materials in India that can be used in attacks, and to call for improved medical treatment and legal assistance for victims.
In her peppy and helpful online video tutorial, Reshma Bano Quereshi promises to teach her viewers “how to get perfect red lips.”
But unlike the more than 200,000 other online videos dedicated to the application of lipstick, this one goes beyond plumping and priming.
After sharing her cosmetic tips, Quereshi, 18, talks about her far more striking facial features. She is missing her left eye, and her skin is badly scarred from an attack in northern India last year by her estranged brother-in-law and a group of men who held her down and poured sulfuric acid on her face. Her brother-in-law was arrested after the attack, but her family has said that two of his accomplices were never caught.
In her video, Quereshi explains that it is as easy for attackers to buy concentrated acid at a market as it is for her to buy a tube of lipstick — and sometimes, it is cheaper. The video, one of several produced by the group Make Love Not Scars, has garnered more than 900,000 views and led to the hashtag #EndAcidSale.
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Bharat Nayak, a representative for Make Love Not Scars, said in an email that bending traditional norms of female beauty was a powerful tactic intended to bring attention to persistent attacks against women in India despite efforts to limit the sale of acid used in many attacks.
“We wanted to create a contrast by using a topic as superficial as makeup to address a hard-hitting issue of acid attacks,” Nayak wrote. “There is so much stigma attached to this, that we felt that video of this kind can change people’s heart and make them feel survivors are as normal as they are.”
Despite a 2013 order by the supreme court of India to stop the open sale of acid and carry out tighter restrictions on distributors, activists in India say dangerous materials — toilet-cleaning acid, for instance — are still readily available. In March, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs reported that 309 acid attacks were reported in 2014. That number is higher than what has been reported in recent years in part because of better systems to report the attacks, and because acid attacks have only recently been classified as a separate crime.
“Before, if there was an acid attack, police never took action. But now it is like rape,” Alok Dixit, the founder of a group called Stop Acid Attacks, told The Wall Street Journal in March.
Nayak said the actual number of attacks was likely higher, and he put the number closer to 1,000 attacks a year.
The video campaign and similar efforts are trying to further limit the sale of acid and other materials that can be used in attacks, and to call for improved medical treatment and legal assistance for victims, Nayak said. (Quereshi told People magazine last week that she did not receive any aid from the government to cover the cost of medical treatment and instead turned to an online donation site to raise money.)
In addition to the videos produced by Make Love Not Scars, online activists are appropriating the tactics used by beauty-industry marketers to draw attention to survivors. Supporters on social media have posted “faceless selfies” to help raise funds for survivors, and others have circulated a photo calendar online.
Rahul Saharan, a photographer in New Delhi who worked on the calendar, said the project was meant to empower survivors, who often feel isolated and stigmatized. In the calendar, one woman poses in a lab coat, holding a sign that says, “I wanted to be a doctor.” Other victims are photographed standing in a chef’s kitchen, sitting in front of a microphone and holding a book.
“The calendar is basically shot on their dreams that they had before their attack,” he said.
Saharan said that survivors were often harshly judged against conventional Indian standards of beauty — fair skin, a defined nose and large eyes. Those features are often targeted by attackers who want to leave a woman physically disfigured and emotionally traumatized. In 2011, researchers at Cornell University found that the perpetrators of these attacks are nearly always men; most are potential suitors or husbands who attack women after they reject a proposal or fail to fetch a large enough dowry.
Saharan, who has also organized fashion- and beauty-themed photo shoots of survivors, said that efforts had succeeded in making the women feel less afraid to appear in public, and empowered some to share their stories publicly.
Sheroes Hangout, a cafe in Agra, about 130 miles south of New Delhi, employs only acid-attack survivors. It was opened by the same people behind the Stop Acid Attacks group, and they would like it to be a safe space for survivors to come and discuss feminism and equal rights.
“If someone has been through a crime,” Saharan said, “as a society we must protect them. We must make them feel better.”