On May 19, 2014, Reshma Qureshi woke up with a bad feeling about the day ahead. The 17-year-old was due to sit an important exam at school and was convinced she would fail. Shortly before 7.30am, Qureshi set off across Mau Aimma, Allahabad, in northeast India, with her sister, Gulshan, and two friends, Afroz and Firdoz. Qureshi soon realised she’d forgotten her phone but was persuaded by the others not to turn back. “All of us are here, why do you need your phone? You can use ours,” her sister told her.
The day her life changed
The group was walking past a dilapidated wall when a voice called out to Gulshan. It was Gulshan’s estranged husband, Jamaluddin, and he was brandishing a bottle of viscous liquid. As he went to pour what turned out to be sulphuric acid over Gulshan, she grabbed his hand, meaning that the acid burned her arm, rather than her face. “Run, Reshma, run,” shouted Gulshan. Qureshi tried to escape but her path was blocked by two more men, Jamaluddin’s cousin and nephew. They held her down in the street and poured acid all over her face.
"Even if I practised hard, I could never again scream the way I did that day," writes Qureshi in her new book, Being Reshma: The Extraordinary Story of an Acid Attack Survivor Who Took the World by Storm. "Even the devil would cover his ears if he had heard me that day."
Qureshi was attacked nearly five years ago but knows that she will bear the physical and mental scars for a lifetime. "My scars are part of me, they tell my story," she says, ahead of her appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. "However, they do not define me."
Qureshi is the first acid attack survivor to walk the runway at New York fashion week. "People have a tendency to look at acid attack survivors from one perspective," she said in 2016. "I don't want them to look at them like that anymore." She is also the face of Make Love Not Scars, an NGO campaigning against the sale of acid; a make-up vlogger; and now a published author.
“I am a young woman with dreams and hopes that are not determined by my circumstances but by where I wish to go,” says Qureshi, who is now 23. “The only way [the attack] defines me is that it shows the world my strength and courage.”
Telling her story to the world
Being Reshma, co-written with Make Love Not Scars CEO Tania Singh and published in December, is an immensely moving memoir, which begins with Qureshi's happy upbringing in Mumbai and subsequent move to Allahabad. The passages about the attack and its aftermath are every bit as harrowing as you would expect – "I remember wondering why they would throw warm water on my face, but that thought lasted only for a heavenly fraction of a second" – but the book also spills over with infectious determination and, ultimately, joy.
“I have found great strength in retelling my story because it reminds me of just how strong I am,” says Qureshi. “[And] it is important to do so [in order] to inspire the world with the power of the human spirit. I take comfort in knowing that if I overcame what I did, I will be fine in the future.”
Above all, though, Being Reshma is a rallying cry for change. There are between 250-300 acid attacks reported every year in India, 80 per cent of them against women, although the number of actual attacks is believed to be much higher. One India-based aid organisation estimates there are, in fact, about 1,000 cases ever year. Many of them are committed by men whose advances have been rebuffed or who are taking revenge after a relationship has broken down.
One of the most successful campaigns orchestrated by Make Love Not Scars was #EndAcidSale, which encouraged people to lobby the Indian government to ban the open sale of acid through stronger implementation of the Poisons Act. Qureshi featured in a video, viewed more than two million times, giving make-up tips but concluded by saying: “You’ll find a red lipstick easily in the market, just like concentrated acid.” On December 8, 2015, the Supreme Court of India ordered Indian states to ban over-the-counter sales of acid.
Pushing for change
When I ask Qureshi if the Indian government is still doing enough to tackle acid attacks, however, her answer is emphatic. “No, you can still buy a litre of acid for half a dollar at your local store,” she says. “The laws must be tightened and implemented.”
It is not just about the law, though. It is about perception. Acid attack victims must endure the daily battle of people staring and whispering. The psychological impact of this can be devastating. Meanwhile, discrimination against survivors makes employment harder to find, something which, combined with the cost of multiple operations, can lead to serious financial difficulties.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, Dr Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network and a senior advocate at India's supreme court, said: "The problems of acid attack victims are unique. They need multiple surgeries, often 10 and above. Their period for rehabilitation could last up to 5-10 years […] Victims need employment, education, money during that period, a safe place to stay and witness protection, because assailants often stalk them afterwards demanding they stop prosecution."
Qureshi has faced down all of these obstacles and stands as a beacon of hope for other acid attack survivors. She credits this to the other women who forged the path before her. “I remember that I had overcome depression post my attack because I had found comfort in the stories and incredible strength of the other survivors,” she says.
“You did nothing wrong. You’re beautiful and you have a fighting spirit. Now go and show the world just what you’re made of.”The publication of Qureshi’s book will undoubtedly do the same for many other victims of this appalling crime. “It might feel like the end of the world, but just know that you should not allow your attacker to succeed in his or her mission of ‘ruining’ your life,” she says. “Go out there and live because you still have the gift of life.
Being Reshma: The Extraordinary Story of an Acid Attack Survivor Who Took the World by Storm is out now. Reshma Qureshi is speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday January 27. For more information and tickets, visit: www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org