23 October 2016Last updated

Real Life

Acid attack survivor walks the ramp in New York

Reshma Bano Qureshi was left disfigured and partially blind after a relative splashed a bottle of acid on her face in a mistaken revenge attack. Now her mission is to campaign for other victims like her, she tells Sarah Gibbons

Sarah Gibbons
30 Sep 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Reuters Image 1 of 4
  • Source:AFP Image 2 of 4
  • A shy teen with simple dreams, everything changed for Reshma when acid meant for her sister Gulshan was thrown on her.

    Source:AFP Image 3 of 4
  • While Reshma says she was dumbfounded at being asked to model at the New York Fashion Week, she presented a picture of grace on the ramp.

    Source:Reuters/Supplied Image 4 of 4

‘Hi girls, I’m Reshma and I’m here to teach you how to get perfect red lips,’ says a cheery 19-year-old, posing confidently in front of her webcam. It’s time for her online tutorial and Reshma Bano Qureshi knows that thousands of her virtual followers will be watching her closely to glean make-up tips.

‘Start with brushing your lips – this removes dead skin and makes your lips rosy. Next, apply lip balm so that the lipstick doesn’t dry.

‘Use a lip liner. It should be the same colour as your lipstick. Now, apply the lipstick – only on the lips, not on the edges.’

With a slight tilt of the head she adds: ‘Looks perfect, right?’

And then comes the tip that sets this tutorial apart from others – and reveals Reshma truly is a remarkable young woman. ‘You’ll find a red lipstick easily in the market… just like you can easily find concentrated acid.’

She continues: the easy availability of the acid is a reason acid attacks are so common across the world. ‘So sign the petition and help enforce the ban on the open sale of acid,’ pleads the Indian teenager.

This is one girl who knows only too well acid’s potential to destroy lives.

Left with horrific burns and scars following an attack inflicted on her reportedly by her brother-in-law and his friends – they mistook her for her elder sister, who was their target – Reshma is taking the fashion and beauty world by storm with her powerful campaign titled #EndAcidSale to highlight the plight of victims and promote the power of inner beauty.

Earlier this month she walked the ramp at the New York Fashion Week. Opening FTL Moda’s runway show dressed in a long-sleeved white gown with colourful panels, created by renowned Indian designer Archana Kochhar, she wowed the audience with her confidence and poise.

But the path to the runway has not been an easy one.

Just two years ago, Reshma was a shy stay-at-home teenager, happy to just study. ‘I had very ordinary plans for myself,’ she says. ‘Marriage, a family…’

But on May 19, 2014, her life took a dramatic turn as she walked to an exam centre with her elder sister Gulshan in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Gulshan was fleeing an abusive relationship with her husband and was about to receive full custody of their five-year-old son.

As they left the bus station, her brother-in-law pounced and grabbed hold of his wife’s hand, spilling acid on it.

She screamed and warned Reshma to run away, but two men on motorbikes raced after her.

‘While I was running, the motorcyclists caught me by the hair and forced me on the ground,’ she recalls, horror etched on her face. ‘One tore my burka and threw acid all over my face.

‘I had no clue what was happening but at that moment my face felt like it was on fire.

‘My brother-in-law was angry that my sister had taken their son. To take revenge, he came to attack her with acid but in the melee, they spilled the corrosive substance on me.’
She says passers-by ignored her screams for help, fearing they would be dragged to court as witnesses, and the sisters lay by the roadside for hours before someone recognised them and called their parents.

Five hours after her ordeal, Reshma was taken to hospital after a lengthy police interrogation.

Weeks and months of treatment followed as her face quickly revealed its disfigurement. She lost her left eye and her right eye is still partially closed.

While Gulshan’s husband was arrested and jailed, a juvenile in the gang has been freed on bail and two other accomplices remain at large, the family said. Reshma underwent five skin grafts to correct the worst of the burns. The scarring has also tightened the skin around her mouth, which will require surgical correction in the future.

‘I lost hope in everything,’ says the brave teenager. ‘I thought my life was over, my face was taken away from me, my identity was snatched.

‘I had no will to live. The pain was unbearable… I had to keep my face covered all the time so no one could see me.’
She remembers the day she first saw herself post-surgery. ‘I fell unconscious. I was a beautiful girl but now all I saw in the mirror was a scalded face with a missing eye.

‘I failed to understand why it happened to me.’

She was left depressed and hid away at her home crying in despair, ashamed of her scars.

‘Treatment was also expensive and I could see my parents struggling for money. I used to tell them that I do not need surgeries and that I should end my life.’

Her father, Zahir Ahmad, 58, who works as a taxi driver, had already taken a loan from relatives to pay for her surgeries and could not afford further treatment for her.

But Reshma’s life and perspective changed when she met Ria Sharma – president and founder of the charity Make Love Not Scars that works with acid attack survivors in India – who helped pay for her plastic surgery and put her on a rehabilitation programme.

She was also encouraged to set herself up online as a vlogger – and soon found herself with an adoring fan club of followers.

‘I have been showered with nothing but immense love, encouragement and support,’ Reshma beams proudly. ‘Everyone has received my videos with so much love and appreciation, there is nothing more I could ask for. It has given me a lot of strength to carry on my life with my head held high.’

Reshma’s make-up tutorial on how to get perfect red lips has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube. The video was made by ad agency Ogilvy & Mather for Make Love Not Scars (MLNS).

Earlier this year, the powerful 67-second video won a Gold Lion in the prestigious Film category at Cannes. It has also won 
a Glass Lion for Change for the important message it conveys – the urgent need to make strong acids unavailable to everyday people.

The #EndAcidSale campaign has been signed by over 300,000 people from across the world.

‘We need to come together and end acid attacks once and for all,’ says founder Ria. ‘There are better and safer methods to clean your homes and it is time to let our government know that we will no longer accept easy sale of acid.’

The memorandum to the Government of India points out that in spite of guidelines from the Supreme Court and an advisory issued by the Central government to restrict the sale and storage of acids, they continue to be easily available.

The petition highlights that current laws provide only a fine in case of non-compliance, and that there is a need to bring in provisions for imprisonment as well. The petition also demands that the use of acids for toilet-cleaning be banned completely.

Reshma is quite stunned about all that’s transpired since the attacks. ‘I could never imagine that I would become the face 
of such an impactful campaign,’ she says. 
‘I never thought that so many people would identify with my problems and show so much support.

‘I was very happy and proud that it was nominated at such a prestigious award ceremony. I could not go to Cannes, but everyone sent me pictures and videos from there.

‘I watched everything sitting in India and was immensely happy and proud for the kind of recognition the campaign received internationally.

‘It will always be an experience that I’ll cherish,’ says Reshma. ‘The campaign gave me means to put across my heartfelt appeal to stop the sale of acid – a cause that is very close to my heart.

‘So when I saw that all the efforts we all put in were being rewarded in such a big way it felt really good.

‘This campaign gave me the confidence to shed my inhibitions and face the world, and my attempt having been received so wonderfully will only leave an everlasting impact on me and my journey.’
Reshma’s journey got a fillip when she was chosen as the model for the campaign taking centrestage at the prestigious New York Fashion Week.

‘I was completely dumbfounded,’ she said before the show. ‘I had no words, only tears of surprise and joy.

‘I am very excited. I have never been abroad, so for me to be walking the ramp at such a big event, it’s unbelievable.’

Critically acclaimed show producers FTL Moda invited Reshma to be part of its campaign #IAmNYFW, which aims to increase diversity in fashion. Ilaria Niccolini, FTL MODA’s founder and producer, says: ‘I strongly believe that the fashion and entertainment industries are the most powerful communication tools. For this reason billboards, or stages, or screens, or prints have the opportunity to convey a strong message.

‘Here we have Reshma, her journey, her images, her beauty at work on the stage of one of the most followed events in the world, New York Fashion Week.

‘This season I wanted to have Reshma because the plague of abuse of acid to attack women, so largely adopted in India and Pakistan, is devastating.

‘We strongly believe that we can make a difference showing a strong and impactful endorsement of an industry that represents the third-most powerful communication vehicle after politics and religion: fashion-entertainment.’

But Reshma is not letting the fame and glamorous lifestyle get in the way of her values and ideals.

Her goals for the future? ‘I definitely want to finish my studies. In future, I want to help this cause; I want to make a difference in the lives of the people who have been attacked with acid.

‘I want to fight for their justice and ensure no life is destroyed because of this heinous crime.’

Says Ria: ‘No one should ever have to go through what my survivors go through. You can’t do anything bad enough to deserve it. An acid attack is the worst sort of crime you can inflict on another human being and I urge people to help.’

Reshma has fought back incredibly from her horrendous ordeal and vows to use her own suffering to improve the plight of fellow victims as she awaits further gruelling hours of surgery to help reconstruct her injured face.

‘Prior to the attack, I used to keep to myself,’ she says. ‘I was very shy and demure. I did not have much confidence.

‘But after the attack I have become more open to my family and the world.

‘I am no longer shy of who I am and what I have to offer, I want my story and my journey to be shared with anyone and everyone who has gone through a tough time and is giving up hope.

‘I just want to tell everyone that in the face of hardships you should never surrender. You will always find the grace and strength to come out of it. Just never give up on the precious life that has been bestowed upon you.

‘If anyone is in trouble, always see them through it. I hope what has happened to me never happens to anyone else. I’ve seen a lot of girls living like me.

‘My advice to everyone is, live! Those who are beautiful see the world in a beautiful way.’

Sarah Gibbons

Sarah Gibbons