Published in Catalogue, 2016
One week ago 19 year-old acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi took to the New York Fashion Week runway draped in an ornate gown and intricate headpiece produced by Archana Kochhar, a prolific Indian designer favoured by Bollywood’s elite. The Mumbai-born teenager was lauded internationally for her courage and composure despite carrying the shocking evidence of such a brutal and senseless attack.
In 2014, Qureshi was travelling with her sister in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh when the pair were attacked by her sister’s estranged husband and a gang of his friends; Qureshi attempted to wrestle a plastic bottle of acid out of their grasp to protect her sister, only to be doused in the corrosive substance herself. Rudimentary medical care in a local hospital led to the loss of Qureshi’s left eye and extensive scarring across her arms, back, and face.
Today Qureshi is determined to act as a beacon of normality for the countless survivors of acid attacks living in India, asserting her plans to complete school and college as well as the importance “that people hear the story about the survivors of acid attacks and to know they can lead normal lives” before taking to one of the most globally exposed platforms in the world.
Qureshi’s story is sickeningly common across fractions of South Asia with concentrated occurrences in states of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Cambodia; however, India has proved to be a singularity in terms of trends and the only nation that has witnessed a steep increase in attacks since 2000. Sulfuric and nitric acid are most commonly used as they are available over the counter in India for the purpose of cleaning machinery – quickly cutting through flesh and bone – leaving victims physically scarred as well as psychologically and economically devastated.
These crimes are overwhelmingly carried out against women and, as such, have been recognised predominantly as a gender crime, often incited by rejection of marriage proposals or sexual advances. According the Acid Survivor’s Foundation India (ASFI), at least 106 acid attacks were carried out in 2012, rising to 122 in 2013, 349 in 2014 and at least 500 in 2015; however, these numbers are also recognised as severe underestimations due to both the death rate and gaps in rural records and some organisations estimate the number to be closer to 1000 in 2015.
So where does the legislation currently stand to protect women and how is it that India’s recent attempts to curb the rise of these attacks has failed so spectacularly? In 2013 the Indian Supreme Court passed “The Poisons Possession and Sales Rules”, which moved to limit over the counter acid sales to people aged 18 and over as well as establishing that all sellers maintain a log of buyers including identities, quantities and reasons for purchase. Fines of up to 50,000 rupees ($AU1000) apply to sellers who fail to comply with these laws and yet, since the implementation the rate of attacks has continued to grow exponentially. Despite increased maximum sentences, legislated inclusion of right to self-defence in cases of acid attack, and government compensation for acid attack victims, the 2013 amendments have proved largely ineffectual.