On a recent trip to India Zardozi visited Sheroes Hangout, cafes in Agra and Lucknow that employ acid attack survivors, empowering them to feel confident and earn a living, all while educating the public about the horrendous violations on their appearance and lives.
“My father attacked me and my mother while we were sleeping,” says Neetu. “I was three-years-old and I lost my younger sister in that attack. We are still living with our father because of society’s pressure.”
Neetu and her mother now work at Sheroes.
Sheroes was established as part of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign to bring awareness about the high rate of acid attacks in India. According to the Chhanv Foundation, there have been over 700 acid attacks since 2014.
“If they didn’t work they wouldn’t become independent,” says Ashish, the manager of the Agra location. “Sheroes gives these women a platform to tell their stories.”
Eight women work at the Agra cafe serving up tasty treats and 15 in the Lucknow location. Ashish says without the cafes, the girls would be without jobs.
Madhu says she was maimed on her first day of college by a man whose attention she rejected. “After the attack, I was looking for a job, but all the recruiters denied me after they saw my face.”
“The attackers move around in society feeling accepted, while the girls who have experienced the violence are not accepted in society,” says Ashish.
“I used to work in a small garments factory,” explains Shabnam. “The manager used to harass me and when I opposed, he threw acid on my face. Now I am living with my little daughter and earning a livelihood by working at Sheroes.”
What stands out aside from the appalling nature of the crimes committed against these women is there resilient characters. They laughed and smiled as they spoke to the Zardozi team and eagerly shared their stories, which hang on the cafe’s walls.
“I was sleeping and my step mother poured acid on my face,” says Rupa. “These were the worst days of my life, but after joining Sheroes Hangout, I got my self-respect back.”
These attacks speak to the violent crimes committed against innocent women in India. Sheroes Hangout is fighting back, building a strong community of women who are speaking out.
Neetu says now she can face the comments people make about her looks. “It took a lot of courage for us to come out because people wouldn’t accept us,” says Neetu.
Photographer Pankaj Dahalia met with the Sheroes Hangout women and shares his Scarred Smiles photographs and stories to tell us more about these brave survivors. “The world deserves to know about these superheroes who have fought against all odds to be where they are-candid and beautiful,” says Dahalia.
“We want people to hear our stories,” says Geeta.
The Sheroes stories below are as told to the photographer.
This brave mother loves to get her pictures clicked. She is an acid attack survivor, but her identity is much more than that. When I asked her to tell me something she loves the most in her life, it only took her a split-second to name her son. The son wishes to be a doctor and she wants to see him become a successful man.
Neetu is gifted with the talent of painting and singing. She has become really strong from within as time passed since the attack. When asked, she said her heart is full with a passion and love for singing. She loves singing the most, though she hardly gets time to listen to music and she often gets bored of a song really soon. She is generally found humming some tune or other while she is working at the cafe.
One cannot miss the sight of Geeta Maa, the eldest of all. Geeta aunty is a very strong and brave woman who has stood against all the odds in her life despite whatever happened. She has not let her past define her and continues to spread joy. She works at Sheroes for a better life of herself and for her family, where she is respected and loved like a mother.
Awarded by the President of India, Rupa cracks a joke that she is only asked to attend big events now because her friends think she is now a famous personality. Rupa is a confident woman who walks and conducts herself with the grace and is jovial and down to earth. Rupa has the clear goal to stop acid attacks and raise awareness. Rupa left me speechless to be honest. She spoke at lengths so beautifully with so much knowledge about her entire experience. She was unafraid and made sure I was comfortable.
I had to ask her where she got her confidence from, to which she said, “I see people around who can’t look at the world and they can’t feel things. Some of them can’t walk or talk while here I am. I know my face is ruined, but I can do everything to survive. I am on my own legs. The fact is that everybody has problems but we need to fight it.”
Rupa left me teary eyed, she has this beautiful vibe around her.
Bala’s biggest regret is that she was attacked by mistake. She was never the target of this attack. She opens about this when I asked her about what is it that she missed the most that she lost because of the attack. She tells me that before the attack she never liked to get her pictures clicked, but now she loves to get her pictures clicked. Somehow she has that confidence in her now.
Madhu ji, loves to get her pictures clicked. She was really excited like a little girl for this shoot. In our conversation, she told me about how she has lately been worried about her husband’s job. He is facing some problem at work but she changes the topic with a wave of joy saying “It is life! We learn to deal with everything.”
Madhu ji was always chirpy and joyous.
Visit the Chhanv Foundation to learn more about how you can help these acid attack survivors.