“I met Asma Mansuree Asfi at a metro station in Delhi, India. Her face was tightly wrapped with a scarf and her eyes were covered with sunglasses. I noticed the scars on her arms and knew that it was the woman I had arranged to meet – an acid attack survivor. She looked down at my own scarred hands and smiled. Asma knew that she could trust me as I was a survivor like herself.
We went to a local cafe where she told me her story.”
“I don’t go out uncovered,” said Asma. “It saves me the hassle and it’s hard to be like this in Indian society.”
Asma was left with 86-percent burns to her body and blinded in her left eye when she was attacked with acid by jealous neighbors.
On April 7, 2004, whilst sleeping in her family courtyard in Uttar Pradesh, Asma and her family had acid thrown onto them. Nine members of the family were injured, including Asma’s younger sister Yasmeen.
“My sister Yasmeen and I were hit the most as we were the target,” Asma explained. “We don’t know who did this, we still don’t know to this day.” The family later found that it had been a neighbor who was jealous of the family’s wealth and success.
12-year-old Asma was immediately rushed to the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi with her sister and underwent 16 operations to save her life. Her mother who was also burned refused treatment so that she could look after her daughters. She was told that both Asma and Yasmeen would not survive.
After the attack, Asma wanted to attend college in order to overcome the psychological scars that tried to hold her back. “I didn’t know how society would behave towards me,” the 25-year-old said. “When I went to class, I covered my face and some people commented, ‘how do they live like that? They are girls, their life is spoiled.'”
Now studying for an MA in Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Asma chose to continue her studies in the hope of financially supporting her family one day. “We’ve lived in rented accommodation in Delhi for 12 years, so it’s my dream to buy a house for my parents in the future.”
Acid attacks in India have been classified as an offence since 2013, but the country has had a rising number of acid attack cases over the years, from 83 in 2011 to 349 in 2015. Although India has the highest rate of acid attacks worldwide, it has the lowest conviction rate. Like Asma’s assailants, many of the attackers are never caught or convicted for their deadly crimes. With acid costing as little as 30 rupees (35p), it is clear to see that acid attacks are out of control here. The lack of sympathy and equality women receive in Indian society also plays a huge factor as to why attackers are not caught.
Survivors are often stigmatised by society in India due to their physical appearance. Female survivors, especially, are often told that they will never marry or become mothers. “I have met many survivors and unfortunately, they just stay at home, too scared to go outside. They just spend their life hidden in their homes,” said Asma. “I want to become their inspiration and show them that they can live a normal life like me – one day I will prove myself to the world.”
Asma attended one job interview where she was told to ‘go home’ when the recruitment panel saw her disfigurement. “I was sitting there whilst they took other girl’s interviews,” she said. “I felt so hurt.”
Struggling to find work, Asma now hopes to raise awareness for people with physical disfigurements in India.
“As you go about your way, a stranger crosses your path and throws some liquid substance on you and all you can feel is agonising pain and burning. Your life changes in a moment and this happens to people, predominantly women around the world,” said Asma.