Activist and domestic violence survivor Reshma Qureshi is bringing her personal story of trauma to the public spotlight and empowering women like her to feel beautiful.
A photograph of Indian acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi before the attack. Indranil Mukherjee | AFP | Getty Images
Note: Some of the images contained in this story are graphic and may upset readers.
Two years ago, 18-year-old Reshma Qureshi’s brother-in-law threw sulfuric acid in her face, a moment of violence that permanently disfigured her. While many women would hide themselves away in the wake of such a violent incident, Qureshi, who lives in India, has purposely sought the spotlight: The model has transformed herself into an activist and beauty-tutorial maven intent on empowering other survivors. She’ll even be making an appearance at New York Fashion Week this month.
Qureshi’s experience as an acid attack survivor is sadly not uncommon. In a video interview with the BBC, Qureshi said that her attacker also attacked her sister. .
“On that day, so many people around us were watching, but no one came to help,” she said. “My life changed completely after the attack.”
According to Women Now, a website for women in India, the local hospital offered Qureshi limited help and she largely relied on crowdfunding campaigns to fund her surgery. She recalls the heartbreaking moment she saw her face for the first time after surgery and didn’t recognize herself.
“I used to tell my family members I would kill myself,” she said. “Everyone tried to make me understand that I have to live on.”
Qureshi has reinvented herself after the attack: she became involved with the charity Make Love Not Scars, which activist Ria Sharma founded as a student at Leeds College of Art. There, she received counseling and found solidarity with other survivors. “Their counseling really helped me recover and gave me courage to live and do something,” she said. “Now I am campaigning to stop the open sale of acid in India.”
Qureshi even became the face of their campaigns. Bold headlines like “Applying a nail paint takes more skill than scarring a face” and “Finding the right shade of lipstick is harder than finding concentrated acid” are meant to shame the acid-throwers and bring social awareness. Though the Supreme Court of India banned the sale of acid in 2013, Qureshi explained that many shops still sell it—and cheaply at that. In her vlogs, Qureshi teaches women how to make their lips boldly red, line their eyes, and cover dark spots. Who better to model for such beauty tutorials than a woman who knows the pain and trauma of an acid attack?
In 2015, Bharat Nayak, a spokesperson for Make Love Not Scars, told the New York Times that such videos bend “traditional norms of female beauty,” which is “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.”
Now Qureshi is bringing her bravery and elegance offline as a New York Fashion Week model this month from September 8–15. It was FTL Moda, a fashion company with a reputation for diversifying model talent on the catwalk, that noticed the videos and decided to hire her. (This was the same company that hired models with disabilities to appear in its fall/winter 2015 New York Fashion Week show to world acclaim.)
“Going to New York after what I have gone through is a really big thing for me,” she said. “I am really excited to walk on the ramp and happy that I will be able to tell my story to people there. Even other other acid attack survivors will get courage after seeing me. I have learned that beauty does not just come from your face and looks. If you believe in yourself, you will be beautiful. We have to show a lot of courage to live our life fully.”
Learn how you can support acid attack victims by visiting MakeLoveNotScars.org. Even reading survivors’ stories and sharing them on social media will raise awareness of acid attacks and, more generally, violence against women throughout the world.
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