It was mid-morning and rush hour traffic in Lucknow, the capital city of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was slow, meandering even. Nineteen-year-old Monica Singh was behind the wheel of her car, on her way to meet a friend. Hoping for a whiff of fresh air in the stifling summer, Monica rolled down the window as she approached a traffic signal.
A man on a bike pulled up next to her. Then he flung something at her. For a split second, the young student thought it was hot liquid, coffee maybe. It felt sticky and she experienced an indescribable burning sensation. And then she screamed.
‘Although it’s more than a decade now, I can still feel the pain,’ Monica says. ‘I felt as though my entire face and upper body were on fire.’
It was 2005 and Monica, a student of India’s prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, became yet another victim of an acid attack.
Standing 177cm tall, she was a good student, an athlete, and was hoping to make a career in the world of fashion. She had taken a few days off to visit her parents and brother in Lucknow, where her father was working in the State Bank of India.
‘A local boy had been pursuing me for about five years and had even suggested that we elope and get married. But I was not interested and told him so,’ she says.
‘But he kept saying he had a crush on me, and wouldn’t take no for an answer, stalking me constantly. When I was out with my parents, he was there; the moment I was out on the balcony, I could see him right there on the street watching me.’
Monica’s parents, although aware of the boy’s unwelcome advances, didn’t perceive him as a threat. ‘Neither did I. But one day he proposed. I said I wanted to study and turned him down. He then said that if I wasn’t going to be in his life, he wouldn’t spare me for anyone else.’
Not expecting him to carry out his threat, Monica continued with her life. Until that fateful day in 2005.
A police officer who first heard her scream rushed her in an autorickshaw to the nearest hospital, almost 45 minutes away. Although she was in a semi-conscious state, the burns were so severe that Monica could barely speak. ‘I was in excruciating pain,’ she says. ‘A few minutes later I lost consciousness.’
The acid burnt almost 75 per cent of her face, chest, thighs, legs and hands. She lost vision in one eye. Her hearing ability was affected; her physical movements restricted.
Today, 90 per cent of her body is still scarred from skin grafts, and she needs constant medical help for her eyes. ‘I can’t see in my right eye and the damaged eye does not shut properly because of the eyelid that had to be reconstructed. I need eye drops round the clock to keep my eyes moistened. My nerves are extremely sensitive, so even a slight bruise can be extremely painful. Also when I fall sick I have to depend on strong antibiotics because my body is unable to heal naturally.’
Two years after, Monica travelled with her father to the site of the crime. ‘We worked with the police to identify the criminals – although I used to be terrified that I was still being watched and stalked.’
Investigations revealed that five people were involved in the crime. ‘However, only two were arrested. Three others, including the man I knew and who masterminded it all, are yet to be caught or punished.’
The attack might have destroyed her body. But it wouldn’t curb her spirit. Today, 46 surgeries later, Monica walks tall. She’s the UN Women’s Global Youth Champion, a fashion marketing alumni of the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York, a motivational speaker, and runs the Mahendra Singh Foundation to help other acid attack survivors.
‘The attack changed my life,’ says Monica. ‘Once a topper in academics and a good athlete, I was reduced to a pitiable object. From a happy-go-lucky teenager I became a trauma-centre patient fighting for survival.’
Monica spent a year in hospital in Lucknow, returning home in a wheelchair, talking like a toddler, eating puréed meals through a straw. ‘I didn’t realise how bad my injuries were because for the first couple of months I didn’t see myself in the mirror. Everyone would tell me I was fine, but it wasn’t until I saw myself by mistake in a mirror that I realised what a state I was in. My face was completely ruined and skinless. My body didn’t look like it was mine.
‘But it was my family, mum Savita, and especially my father, who stood behind me at this hour, solid as a rock. Dad was very clear that I should finish what I’d started out to do.’
Monica’s father, Mahendra Singh, took a transfer to Delhi soon after the attack. ‘I needed several rounds of plastic surgery and was on a medical break from college for almost a year. The 46 surgeries, most of which were reconstructive ones on my face, neck, chest, hands and leg, cost around Rs6 million (about Dh328,600),’ she says.
The operations left a deep scar on her psyche. ‘I’ve a phobia of needles. The beeping sounds of the operation theatre still haunt me. It was complete hell. But my father took the responsibility to keep me alive and he single-handedly arranged for all the money to get these surgeries done.’
Nearly three years later, Monica, her face bandaged and wearing a black veil, was finally able to return to her college. And while friends and teachers accepted her wholeheartedly and gave her all the support she needed, she took a long time to heal emotionally.
‘I didn’t go for any counselling. But I knew I had to move on in life, so I became my own psychologist. I’d sit in front of the mirror for hours talking to myself, motivating myself. I kept myself constantly occupied, worked hard and visualised myself getting better. I have no idea how I did that. I think my competitive spirit helped me overcome my pain to a certain degree. I worked very hard to ensure my grades never suffered.’
For almost eight years Monica lived behind the veil. She reasoned with herself on whether it made more sense to overcome her challenges or take a back seat in life and play the victim. ‘I used to ask “Why me?’’ quite often; I was a normal girl with normal needs, so why did I have to be punished in this way?’
Then one day she just stopped feeling bad about herself. ‘It was like flipping a switch. I thought: I still have a working brain, an arm and a leg. I’m still independent. So if I could use my experience to inspire or motivate even one girl, that wouldn’t be a bad deal at all.
‘Today I think of my attack as an incident that has led me on to work for the greater good of women, to champion their rights.’
Once she had made up her mind, there was no looking back. She put her heart and soul into her studies and graduated from NIFT in 2009 as one of the toppers in her batch. But her joy was short-lived as her father died following a health condition, leaving the family in a financial crisis.
‘My father’s death was a huge shock but it only strengthened my determination to restart my life. I wanted to pursue my education and applied to several international colleges. It was almost like a challenge that I had to live up to. So when I finally made it to the top fashion school Parsons, which boasts of an illustrious alumni including Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, I was overjoyed.’
Monica resorted to crowdfunding to help her get the much-needed financial support to enrol at Parsons. In an open letter she underlined her life as a victim, her trauma for almost nine years, the struggle to accept her image, the loss of her father, and her dream to study in a school like Parsons.
She raised $25,000 (about Dh91,800), which helped her pay the first instalment of her tuition fees.
New York changed Monica is several ways. It was hard for her in the beginning and she struggled to pay her bills just to keep a roof over her head, but eventually organisations came forward to help her out. Make Love Not Scars, an Indian charity helping acid attack victims, and an online shopping brand Myntra helped to raise funds for her. But eventually it was Parsons who gave her a huge scholarship to finish the course.
And while she was hard at work, studying entrepreneurship and marketing to understand a different side of the world of fashion, the city set her free. ‘I started living like any other girl. I started wearing make-up, going out. I dressed up and wore make-up because I didn’t want my scars to tell a story. I didn’t want to sell my scars. I wanted to blend in, live life like any other normal girl. I wanted my education to speak for me.’
It was at Parsons that Monica started her work towards building a foundation for women in India and New York – along with her 32-year-old brother, Nikhil Singh, a banker – that would provide guidance and help to survivors of rape, domestic violence, physical abuse and acid attacks. Named after her father, the Mahendra Singh Foundation makes sure all survivors become self-sufficient to the best of their abilities.
‘The foundation teaches survival skills to women and helps them achieve financial independence,’ says Monica. ‘This varies from providing scholarships to pursue a range of academic courses in India and abroad to digital designing and stitching courses.
‘My aim is to remove the stigma that comes with rape, physical abuse, domestic violence and acid attacks. This is the biggest project I’ve undertaken in my life and I hope it will continue to the next few generations. I hope my grandkids can be a part of this as well.’
As she slowly found her way in and around New York, letting people know about the work she and her foundation does, she began to be noticed. The United Nations then appointed her as their Global Youth Champion, as one of the young leaders who have been doing influential work for society.
In India, Monica is the vice-president of Make Love Not Scars. In 2015 she was part of Pixel Project’s 16 Female Role Models who have transformed personal pain into positive action. Her story has been an inspiration to others to get involved with the global movement to end violence against women. Monica has since spoken at numerous platforms, including the Parliament of the World Religions, the Supreme Court New York County and Brooklyn Law School, encouraging women, particularly acid attack victims, to keep on fighting for their rights.
In March 2016, on International Women’s Day, Monica spoke at the UN on gender equality. ‘The theme was Planet 50-50 by 2030 and this was the biggest honour I have received so far. It was such an incredibly proud moment for me.’
Monica says the initiative urges governments to make national commitments that will close the gender equality gap and empower all women and girls, as well as ensure inclusive and quality education for all.
Education, Monica feels, could be the key to every victim’s survival. ‘I believe in doing things myself and education has empowered me to do that. I always took fashion as a positive pillar in my life. And the deeper I went into it I realised knowing what you wear and how you wear it can help empower a person. Today I know I can’t wear clothes that people wear under normal circumstances. I have to opt for completely covered clothes to conceal my scars. But my education in fashion designing has taught me to dress myself in a way that I come across as strong and confident.’
Today, at 30, Monica confidently claims that she has a lot more to achieve. ‘I see myself travelling a lot and spreading as much awareness as I can. I also see myself falling in love and getting married to a man who understands me and my situation. My life has just begun.’