AGRA, INDIA - Oblivious to the sound of blaring horns as evening traffic rushes by on a busy road in India’s tourist hub of Agra, acid attack survivors sing songs and stomp their feet to lively Bollywood numbers inside a cafe decked out in strings of yellow marigolds.
There is much to celebrate on the second anniversary of Sheroes Hangout, the cafe they run: their emergence into the social mainstream from the shadows where they had hidden their scarred faces; the rekindling of hopes and dreams, a perceptible shift in public attitudes towards them; and the launch of two more cafes in the cities of Lucknow and Udaipur this year.
The youngest woman, 17-year-old Dolly Kumari Singh, has gone back to school. Like other acid attack victims, she did not dare show her face outside her home after a man burnt her with corrosive chemicals two years ago. But the time she spent working at the cafe gave her the courage to venture back into the classroom.
“When I went back to school, I was wondering if my friends would talk to me?" said Singh. "But they all spoke nicely to me, so did my teacher. I felt so good, I go daily.”
The acceptance she received at school is in large measure due to the impact of the Sheroes Hangout, which was launched in 2014 by Stop Acid Attacks, a Delhi-based nonprofit group. The cafe was set up to bring acid attack survivors out of isolation and create awareness about the plight of girls and women who had simply vanished from public view.
India not only has the highest number of acid attacks in the world, they have also been on the rise – about 350 were reported in 2014. In a male dominated society, the assailants are usually men seeking revenge for spurned marriage proposals, sexual advances or even failing to bring enough dowry.
Among those dancing with the most fervor at the Agra cafe is Laxmi Agarwal, 28, who was attacked with acid in 2005, and today is one of India’s most prominent campaigners for the survivors of such horrific assaults.
“People knew about victims of rape and domestic violence, but little about acid attack survivors,” she said as she joined the more than dozen women who run the three cafes.
That has changed in the past two years as hundreds of customers, Indian and foreign, got to know the women who cook, serve and manage Sheroes Hangout.
More than anything, the cafes have given them courage to move on with their lives.
“We cannot kill our quest for happiness, our dreams. Now we have come out as fighters, not as victims,” said Agarwal.
The bursts of laughter, cracking of jokes, singing and dancing, at the anniversary celebrations bear testimony to that.
“I could never even give an answer to anybody if someone spoke to me, but now I can. So much has changed,” said Anshu Rajput. The 18-year-old works at the recently opened cafe in Udaipur.
Another feisty young woman, Farah Khan, says that although she never let her spirit die after her former husband sprayed acid on her face six years ago, she feels good when customers talk to her.
“In those years, comments people passed only made me stronger, but I could never discuss this topic with anybody, talk to anybody," said Khan. "Now it feels good to share my story with others.”
That is everyone’s story – of emerging from isolation and misunderstanding into a more caring environment.
Indeed, much has been achieved since Sheroes Hangout was launched in Agra. At least 10 private sector organizations have offered jobs to acid attack survivors, who earlier could not have imagined finding employment, which is one of the key reasons the cafe was started.
Although some could not take advantage of the opportunity because they don't have the necessary education or job skills, the offers represent a huge shift in attitudes, said Alok Dixit, convener of Stop Acid Attacks.
In Udaipur, where Sheroes Hangout is located in a shopping mall, which gives it more visibility. Other shops have offered to employ them after noticing people streaming into the cafe in a gesture of support.
Recalling the launch of the Agra venture, Dixit said, “We had no idea where we will go because then our targets were not very big. Then slowly we found help.”
People have come forward from all walks of life to boost the campaign in a myriad ways – locals have befriended them, high-profile public figures have dropped by, some have made documentaries.
“Earlier it was solely our responsibility, but now it [the campaign] has distributed among the people,” said Dixit.
The ultimate aim is for there to be no need to open more cafes as society begins to accept that acid attack survivors have a right to a normal life. At that point, the survivors will not need a support system.
Many of the girls here are inspired by Laxmi Agarwal’s story, who stopped covering her face four years after being attacked in 2005. The public gaze was initially not easy to handle, but as she emerged at the forefront of the campaign, she walked the fashion ramp in London to raise awareness of violence against women, modeled for an Indian clothing label, and found love. She has an 18-month-old baby with her partner Alok Dixit.
“We never thought it [Sheroes] is the success it has been,” Agarwal said with a note of quiet satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Dixit focuses on the achievements that he says few people notice. On the streets, the stares have stopped.
“When I walk with Laxmi here in Agra, the [public’s] eyes are already comfortable. It makes you a little confident from inside,” he said, with a satisfied smile. “The first reaction is not that ‘See how she is looking,’ and they don’t make fun of them. This has changed.”