Reshma Qureshi’s is a story that must be told. As a teenager, Reshma was assaulted by her brother-in-law who splashed her face with acid in Allahabad as she was walking to school with her sister. Her story puts a face to those countless survivors who live with scars within for their entire lives. The Mumbai-based Reshma, along with Tania Singh — co-author and CEO of Make Love Not Scars — has penned down ‘Being Reshma’ with an aim to empower all those who face abuse and violence in all forms.

SheThePeople.TV spoke with Reshma Qureshi and Tania Singh about Being Reshma, acid attack incidents in the country, and how we can garner empathy among citizens.

Reshma, why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write this book because I truly believe that my story is not just mine alone, but a reflection of the journeys of millions of survivors of gender-based abuse. Gender-based violence is a story that hits close to home for many, yet survivors are afraid of speaking out. By putting a face to acid violence through my journey, I wish to inspire those who are stuck in violent, abusive relationships, those who need to know about the harsh reality we face as women in India, those who wish to bring about change, yet don’t know how, those who just wish to know more about acid attacks and most importantly, those who feel as though they can’t overcome their current obstacles.

Life is a series of tragic events for many, yet I truly hope to show that at the end of the tunnel, we can always choose to switch on a bright light — from within ourselves

In what ways do you both think this book can convince people to contribute to the change our world needs to see?

Reshma: This book can convince people to contribute towards the change our world needs to see because it highlights the help I received from virtually unknown people along the course of my journey.

From the kind shopkeeper who gave my sister free clothes when she didn’t have money to cover my naked body post my attack to young women like Ria Sharma, who at 21, helped fundraise for my surgery,  my book highlights how ordinary people can make a difference — one step at a time

Tania: Contrary to popular belief, change comes from the grassroots, not from the top down. This book exemplifies that and can inspire each reader to understand how they can contribute towards making this world a better place.

Reshma, in the book, you’ve mentioned about your mother’s battle with cancer and your sister’s ordeal with domestic violence. How did these two instances enable your thought process and affect your childhood?

My mother survived cancer and was mistreated by hospitals to a large degree. My father had to sell his entire taxi business for her recovery, yet the private hospital cheated us monetarily. Eventually, my mother was treated by a charitable hospital. I realised how hard it is in India to survive with financial difficulties and even more so, to survive as a woman. I saw how dowry played a role in my sister’s abuse. My childhood was stressful, with secrets hidden under the surface, untouched and unspoken off, yet present. My family tried to protect me because of my young age, but I knew things were wrong.

I have grown up to realise that education is the key to change and all women should be educated to become contributing, and more importantly, independent members of society

Tania, the book also shows the hard reality of how society treats acid attack survivors. What do you have to say about the ordeal the survivors face?

Every time a survivor, including Reshma, looks in the mirror, she is reminded of the fact that she survived a horrific crime. This memory, while haunting, can be overcome personally if society loves, accepts and embraces survivors. However, as of now, the world itself is the harshest reminder of what it means to be the survivor of an acid attack as it indulges in victim blaming, asking invasive questions and forcing survivors to cover up.

Living with scars as an acid attack survivor is itself hard and society makes it harder still

How can we work towards creating a more meaningful dialogue that makes acid attack survivors feel as important as others?

I think we need to start initiating dialogues and training in empathy amongst medical care providers, law enforcement and family members of survivors.

Most of the times, officials get so caught up in bureaucracy that they forget how much pain the survivor is in. Reshma lost her vision in one eye because the hospital refused to treat her before she went to the police station to file an FIR. She was 17 at the time

Do you think cinematic adaptations of these stories, and celebrities endorsing them, can help generate more awareness and make the society more accepting?

Absolutely! I think films have a way of inspiring us visually and emotionally and I can’t wait to see how this turns out!

The easiest way to connect with a character is through a film, and it creates an intense level of empathy towards the characters on screen

Reshma, the hospital refused to treat you when you went for help, asking instead for an FIR. Have times changed from then to now? How can people become more sensitive and not let survivors go through a hard time during the recovery?

Initially, my family and I were not aware of our rights and were misled by officials in police, law and hospitals. Now, I am an activist and know my rights and can implement them.

People can be more sensitive by understanding that anyone can be attacked with acid. Put yourself in my shoes and tell me how you’d feel

Tania, you’ve worked with so many survivors. Several incidents show that people don’t really know how to react when an acid attack happens. How can institutions make people more aware and considerate about first-aid and subsequent treatment?

Yes, most people don’t know how to react when an acid attack or a fire injury happens. India is a large country, however, our resources are limited in spreading awareness.

We have over 10 lakh burns every year, yet very few know basic first aid. Our government needs to push for first aid awareness in schools and universities itself. Social media too can be a powerful tool for the same

Reshma, how did you deal with the depression that aggravated post the incident? What helped you get back up and move forward in life?

I wanted to kill myself. However, I am deeply loved and gained strength from my family. I saw how much pain they were in and couldn’t imagine what it would be like for them if I killed myself. Apart from that, I found purpose through Make Love Not Scars and gained strength through other survivors.

I gained strength from knowing that my attacker wanted to “ruin” my life and I would get the sweetest revenge by living an accomplished, successful and happy life

Reshma, what led you to New York Fashion Week? How was that experience?

Ria Sharma, the founder of Make Love Not Scars, was approached by Archana Kochhar to bring me to New York Fashion Week. Ria surprised me and recorded the video of my reaction! I started crying when I heard such a large platform wanted me to represent an Indian designer and the video of my reaction went viral on YouTube!

New York was a dream come true, a highlight of my life and it gave me immense courage to know I was inspiring strong, beautiful women who might not fit the popular criteria on what it meant to be beautiful and convinced them that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and that what makes the world more beautiful is our differences and accepting those differences

Tania, what was the most difficult part of writing this book?

The most difficult part was comparing my life with Reshma’s and realising how cruel the world can be to women.  I had a sheltered life and the journey helped me understand that privilege comes with responsibility. While I was 17, I was worried about things like exams and pimples, while Reshma was worried about whether or not she would survive.

It was challenging to understand what Reshma went through and I wanted to protect her from repeating the most horrific memories she harbours. I didn’t want to make her go through that journey and so, I turned to her family, doctors and the founder of Make Love Not Scars, Ria Sharma, to help me put together parts of her book

You have mentioned in detail about the pain you suffered during the course of treatment and otherwise. Do you believe people will feel the pain survivors go through after reading the book?

No one can ever understand the pain an acid attack survivor goes through.

Acid burns through metal, can you even imagine what it can do to flesh and bones? We hope this book can help garner empathy

Tania, you mentioned that #MeToo does not exist in a vacuum. How do you think this movement and the current course of events can help dismantle a system that has been normalised since ages?

I believe that the #MeToo campaign is one social media campaign that has the power of a grassroots level campaign. It challenges the very basic hindrance to reporting sexual assault — victim blaming.

The more people speak up, the more we understand the extent of the problem and I believe it inspires more women to gain strength from those before them

What do you urge the government and authorities to do so that acid attacks don’t happen in the first place?

We need better implementation of laws and fast track courts. Cases go on for years and attackers believe that they’ll never see a day in court. However, if we could bring swift, deft convictions in such cases and set a strong example, I believe the fear of consequences would hinder future attacksBelieve that the fear of consequences would hinder future attacks.

Photo credits: Tania Singh

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