Imagine your face, burnt and charred. Your nose replaced by two little holes, almost as if it does not exist, just a slit for a mouth, and your skin sticking to the adjacent parts making movement difficult. The very thought of it is frightening. But that is the life these women have been leading since they were attacked with acid. Acid attack is an extremely gruesome crime committed against women. There are a significant number of cases in India, some are registered, some go unnoticed while others are scared to come out in the open and tell their stories because they are afraid of what the outcome would be.
I had read of these cases, watched their interviews online, their stories touched me deeply, but not until I met them did I realize what acid attacks truly mean. A meager toilet cleaning agent that we may have used several times has now wiped out the very existence of a person.
“I’ve lived this way for the past ten years now, people look at me strangely. Today, I was travelling in the bus and a mother and son were seated opposite. They looked at me and began laughing loudly. While the others looked at me and turned away. I did not know what to do. I was helpless, who can I blame? They laugh because I look this way and I am aware of that,” said Jayalakshmi, as she tried to fight her emotions.
Jayalakshmi was attacked by her husband in Tumkur. She explained that he always doubted her, even before the attack he used to beat her up. Every time she went back to her parents with cuts and bruises, her mother would advice her on the importance of a husband and what it means to be a wife. She said one of her mother’s advice was, “It is alright if he beats you, after all he is your husband. He has the right to do anything he wants to, please don’t come back here. Now that is your home.” Her words sent shivers down my spine. Her very own mother spoke so heartlessly. It is sad that our society still holds such misogynistic views.
She went on to tell me of how her husband was given a jail term, and how her struggles began from then on. To defend his deeds she said, swallowing her tears, that he blamed her of running a brothel. “He said I was a prostitute, and that is why he did this to me. My very own husband to whom I gave twenty long years of my life, bore his children, got them married and now he speaks of me as a prostitute,” she paused. “Thankfully my neighbors backed me up,” she continued, tears rolling down her eyes.
Many cases of acid attacks go unregistered because the society blames the woman. There have been cases in which the police have barged into the woman’s house to cross check if it was a brothel or if there was illegal sexual activities happening. What right does a man have to throw acid on a woman, even if she is a sex worker? What makes her lesser of a human being, she is entitled to all the human rights as of any of us. Nobody has the right to take that away from her.
Most often the victims hear these sentences after the attack, “She gave way, must have been her fault, she deserves it, Oh! Love, she was in love this ought to happen, characterless woman!” Not only does she have to go through physical and mental trauma all her life for no fault of hers, she is also ostracized by the society.
Jayalakshmi is now a social activist, working for women rights and women empowerment in the villages. She has come a long way. But her life was never easy. In the beginning her family told the doctors to take away her life. “They said, how could anyone live with a face like that, I was unconscious, after I gained consciousness I was given treatment. They warned me not to look at the mirror.” Her body was burning, she knew she was attacked by acid, somewhere deep down she knew life would never be the same. But it was not until she saw her face that reality dawned upon her.
Recollecting the incidents in chronological order, she says that she saw her face while drinking coffee. It was her reflection and that day something within her broke. “I wanted to die; I told the doctors that I don’t want to live anymore. Why live with a face like this, and even today I wonder why didn’t the attack kill me, why did I survive?” She looked towards me as though seeking for an answer, but all I could do was stay mum. Who could answer any of her questions? We equally carry the shame of this act. For staying mum, for allowing her and so many others go through something like this.
Our face is our identity, with that gone and the very people you seek courage from treating you like an alien. All you can do is give up. “Nobody gave me their house on rent; they said their children would get scared of me. The people in my locality asked me to wear a burkha because my face was so frightening,” she said, now smiling at me. Not once did the people in her locality, the very place she lived for 20 long years think what it would be to lose a face. Every time she looks at someone whether ugly or beautiful, the very fact that they have a face would be killing her. How would she look at herself, dealing with that very reality was a task of courage.
“I don’t care anymore, let them look. This is me. I feel hurt when I am called for marriages and people take photos. I just want to get done with it. I don’t wear a burkha, this is my identity now and I have come to accept it. Before the attack I was a very scared person. I wouldn’t walk out of the house without my husband’s permission. But now I have changed, I am not scared anymore,” she proudly stated. All of us have a voice, and there’s a reason we do. If we can’t raise our voice against injustice, for the innocent people who are in pain, then what use are we to the society? They say it takes courage to raise your voice, in reality it just needs a heart that can feel for another.
Today Jayalakshmi is a strong woman, who goes around educating women about their rights. She says that it is shocking that women from the cities also go to her for help. It isn’t about where you come from, injustice is everywhere and all people need today is courage, she explains. Women are taught to be submissive from childhood and that’s how they grow up, when it’s time to face the world they are left helpless.
“I am more confident without a face than when I had one. People will look, they will laugh. It hurts but what’s more important to me is to be useful to the society. So what if it happened to me, even if I do cry every night, I am happy that I am helping someone else. It all starts at home,” she says. Educate your daughters but do not forget to teach your sons the value of a woman. Do not forget to tell him to respect a woman, because she is an equal.
My conversation with Jayalakshmi gave me a new perspective to the world. Her achievements gave me courage and taught me so much. It wasn’t a conversation; it was an experience I will never forget. Every acid attack survivor is a fighter, an epitome of strength. Their beauty lies not in their face but in their outlook to life, in their very being. The world has a lot to learn from these women.
While I was contemplating on all of this and fuming with anger towards those cowardly men who stoop to such low levels to prove their superiority, all I could see in Jayalakshmi was gratitude towards the few who helped her, who stood up for her.
It is shameful that in our search for beauty, in our superficial outlook of the world we have stopped looking into the depths, stopped valuing human emotions. In our efforts to reach somewhere, to go ahead in the race, we have stopped being humane. We have forgotten humanity. And no amount of money, success or fame can give you that. In all honesty, Jayalakshmi showed me how poor we are, how ugly we truly are on the inside and how selfish human race is. She unmasked the whole of society in the two hours that we spoke.
So now I realize the statement, ‘Beauty is skin deep.’ May be for once, we as human beings must look into the mirror and ask ourselves how beautiful are we on the inside. Your skin will wrinkle, your eyes will go dim, and your teeth may not stay there forever too. But the little heart you carry will stay beautiful forever; let us make our inner selves beautiful, because that is everlasting. May be all this while our very perception of the world was wrong, people must be loved for who they are and not for the way they appear.
Strange but true, all our scriptures teach love, because that is the only language common to the entire universe. Let us learn the language of love. Their scars may never heal but can pave way to a revolution. A revolution in perspective!