Acid attack victims grace catwalk

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Indian acid attack survivors pose at the end of a fashion show organised by the Make Love Not Scars NGO in New Delhi on Saturday. AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Nine women disfigured by acid became defiant models on Saturday at the first haute couture fashion show for the survivors of the growing scourge of acid attacks in India.

The women, nearly all victims of husbands or close family, paraded in gowns donated by top Indian designers including Rohit Bal, Ranna Gill and Archana Kochhar. None covered their face.

“I was very nervous,” said Meena Khatoon, mother of a young son after her venture down the catwalk. But the New Delhi woman, who was attacked by her ex-husband, insisted she had a point to prove.

“People often looked away when I went outside. They would walk in the opposite direction when they saw me. I would face a lot of problems,” Khatoon said.

“But then one day I thought, if that’s the way you think, so be it.

I have to build my life, I want my son to study and I have to support him.” Khatoon now runs her own small business fixing mobile phones.

She has been helped by Make Love Not Scars which organised the New Delhi show. The group helps survivors reconstruct their lives and in many cases their faces.

It also backed Reshma Bano Qureshi, 20, who appeared at the New York fashion week last year and who is now writing a book that will come out next year.

Qureshi, who was attacked three years ago by her brother-in-law, who had thought he was throwing acid at his wife, was also afraid to leave her home.

“I was scared it would happen again. I was bothered by how people reacted to me on the streets. People would look away.

“People would say ‘what happened to you?’ They would say ‘no one will marry you.’ They’d say ‘with a deformed face you’re not beautiful.’ But I’m proud and confident of who I am. I want people to know the face is not what makes you beautiful, it is your heart.

“I am so happy because the other girls had the same opportunity to enjoy the experience that I had before.”

Hundreds of attacks are reported each year, but Tania Singh, vice-president of Make Love Not Scars, believes the true figure is in the thousands.

She said local governments do not report all cases, some women die before a criminal case is launched and some choose to stay with abusive families.

“We had one case where a woman was attacked by her husband three times and she still continues to live with him.”

The Lalit hotel, where the fashion show was held, has provided a room for one woman who was attacked two weeks ago and is waiting for help.

The fashion show was an important way to boost survivors’ confidence, Singh said.

“A lot of them are just having a good time, they have never had such a good time.”

Many of the women at first refuse to take off their scarves when they go to Make Love Not Scars.

“They say ‘we can’t do it, we are pretty ugly’ and we tell them that’s not true you are not ugly, society is ugly.”

The fashion show is “a chance to realise that they deserve acceptance, love and belonging. Now they can go back out there and they can tell the world that they don’t have to hide their faces and scars. It is the world that needs to change its thinking”.

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