In Meghna Gulzar's Chhapaak, based on the life of activist Laxmi Agarwal, Deepika Padukone played an acid attack survivor. Prior to the film's release, Padukone and the Chhapaak team launched an awareness campaign around the issue of acid attacks in India.
Acid attacks are not an uncommon occurrence in India, but there is little public discourse on the issue, and research and data availability is poor. In fact, acid attacks weren't even recognised as a separate offence until as recently as 2013, when the Criminal Amendment Act of 2013 was passed. Padukone's campaign " #WontBuyWontSell " is a welcome change, and her star power means the issue could finally get the public attention it deserves.
And Padukone partly succeeds in this endeavour, by highlighting one major aspect of the problem: the open sale of acid in the country despite Supreme Court regulations that restrict its sale.
In a recent video launched as part of the campaign, Padukone sent undercover actors to various markets to attempt to purchase acid without furnishing any documentation. She watched in horror as hidden cameras captured shopkeepers unquestioningly selling acid, with some expounding on how it can burn through flesh, and a couple of them even joking about its possible use on humans.
Padukone says in the video, "The biggest reason why acid is thrown, is acid itself¦ If it [acid] wasn't sold, it wouldn't be thrown." This is essentially the reasoning behind the video's call to action: don't buy acid, don't sell acid, and if you see any such sale going on that violates the Supreme Court guidelines, alert the authorities.
This narrative, however, tells only half the story, because it doesn't focus on the perpetrators of the crime at all.
A 2009 report submitted by the Law Commission of India to the Supreme Court, for its consideration in Laxmi Agarwal's PIL on acid attack violence, noted: "Though [an] acid attack is a crime which can be committed against any man or woman, it has a specific gender dimension in India. Most of the reported acid attacks have been ¦ on women, particularly young women, for spurning suitors, rejecting proposals of marriage, denying dowry etc. The attacker cannot bear the fact that he has been rejected and seeks to destroy the body of the woman who has dared to stand up to him."
In a 2017 article, 'Can Understanding Phenomenology and Human Capabilities Help Us Address Acid Violence?', published in the South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies, academicians Dr Bipasha Barua and Aisha Siddika argued that acid attacks against women are rooted in patriarchal systems, and are a form of gender-based violence against women. They wrote, "Acid violence is categorised as a form of GBV (gender-based violence) because gendered roles and hierarchies within families and society not only motivate perpetrators to commit the crime, but also provide them with a sense of impunity¦ Women and girls are disproportionately represented among the victims of acid violence."
"Patriarchal ideas contribute to a culture in which acid attacks on women are rampant," says Dr Mousami Singh, associate professor at the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at King George's Medical University in Lucknow. Dr Singh and her colleagues at KGMU conducted an analytical study of the data from 52 cases of acid attack victims who were admitted to the hospital for treatment between 2012 and 2017 under a government scheme. Their study, 'Acid attack on women: A new face of gender-based violence in India', was published in 2017. They found that 65 percent of the victims were under the age of 30, and about 42.3 percent of the attackers in these cases were unrequited 'lovers'. Other motives included dowry demands and marital disputes. In their paper, Dr Singh et al noted that women are usually considered "second-class citizens" in a male-dominated society that is "influenced by cultural and social norms" which reward men for being "aggressive, powerful, and controlling".
An earlier study conducted by Mamta Patel, professor and HOD " Criminology and Forensic Science, at Dr HSG University Sagar, drew the same conclusion. Patel's 2014 paper, 'A Desire to Disfigure: Acid Attack in India', analysed newspaper reports of 58 acid attack cases reported between 2009 to 2013, and found that there were four broad reasons for acid attacks: cultural, societal, situational, and personal. Cultural reasons included "gender inequalities", "misogyny" and a "culture of revenge"; societal reasons stemmed from "a history of punishment towards women", "impunity of perpetrators", and "social permissiveness"; situational reasons were governed by factors such as "geographic situation, the emotional state of individuals, and peer association"; and personal reasons "start from interpersonal feelings like male shame, powerlessness, and poor anger management skills".
Most of the perpetrators in cases of acid attacks against young women are jilted men. Dr Mousami's Singh's 2017 paper notes that women's rejection of men's advances and proposals "hurts" their "ego". This is what happened with Laxmi Agarwal, the activist and acid attack survivor who inspired the film Chhapaak " she was attacked by Naeem Khan in 2005 after she rejected his proposal. Another shocking case was that of Haseena Hussain's, who was attacked by her ex-employer Joseph Rodrigues in April 1999 after she rejected his marriage proposal and quit working for him. Shortly after she resigned from her job, he turned up at her new office and threw a jug of acid on her.
Alox Dixit, activist and co-founder of Chhanv Foundation, notes that revenge is one motive in such cases, but so is a need to re-establish control. "Jilted men often throw acid on women so they cannot get married to anyone else. I have seen cases in which men have sent marriage proposals to their victims after attacking them with acid," says Dixit. In cases such as that of college student Susithra in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu in 2019, women are attacked with acid by partners who suspect them of being unfaithful, or even just of being friendly with other men. Dixit notes that crimes motivated by jealousy and possessiveness indicate deep-rooted misogyny, because "many men think of women as property, and when they start feeling like they've lost control over the women they desire, they try to destroy them".
Then there are the cases of women being attacked with acid by their husbands and in-laws over marital disputes, including dowry disputes. While dowry-related disputes are fairly common, conflicts with in-laws over other issues have also motivated acid attackers. Shaheen Malik, director of Human Rights Law Network's (HRLN) Campaign Against Acid Attacks, has worked with survivors of over 250 acid attack cases in the last few years. She described a case in which a woman was forced to drink acid by her husband and in-laws because they felt she had become "too outspoken", and another in which a man threw acid on his pregnant wife's genitals to induce an abortion, because he feared she would give birth to yet another daughter.
She notes that the choice of an acid attack in such cases is merely the culmination of a long series of abusive behaviours that women have to put up with in their marital homes. The fault lies with social conditioning, which prevents women from speaking up or seeking help in such situations. Malik notes, "No matter how modern we think we are as a society, the ground reality is that married women are always told that they must tolerate their husbands' misbehaviour and in-laws' mistreatment. We are the ones who teach girls to constantly 'adjust' and tolerate, often from childhood." This prevents women from seeking and getting help until it is too late.
Another troubling trend is of men carrying out acid attacks on women who have done well academically, professionally or financially. In 2006, three men threw acid on Gul Naaz, a middle-aged mother of three in Jammu. Their reason? They did not approve of her opening a beauty parlour to earn a livelihood after her husband was gravely injured in a traffic accident. Similarly, in 2013, an unemployed man in Mumbai carried out a fatal acid attack on his neighbour Preethi because he was jealous of her having secured a job as a nurse in the Navy. A star student in Agra reportedly dropped out of school in 2016 after being threatened with an acid attack by goons who had previously sexually harassed her.
Alok Dixit blames traditional gender roles and gender inequality for this mentality, saying, "Many people don't believe that women should progress. When a woman chooses to study, work, dress well, and go out of the house, these people can't handle it. Woman these days are challenging patriarchal norms and are going beyond their traditional roles " but people's attitudes have to change as well."
Dixit cites the example of a woman whose husband threw acid on her because he was unhappy with the office culture at her workplace, which allowed interactions among colleagues. Tragically, instances like this are used by some to hold women back, rather than prompting a rethink of how gender equality can be achieved. Dixit says that families of some acid attack survivors regret allowing them to pursue opportunities for academic or professional success in the first place; in the aftermath of acid attacks he has heard family elders of victims say that it would have been better if they hadn't educated their daughter at all.
Although sexist beliefs and misogyny are deep-rooted attitudes which develop over a period of time, perpetrators' choice of attacking with acid is a deliberate one. Unlike other forms of gender-based violence, acid attacks have a distinct element of planning and intentionality. The 2009 report prepared by the Law Commission of India notes, "Perpetrators of the crime act cruelly and deliberately. Acid violence is a premeditated act ¦ as the perpetrator of the crime carries out the attack by first obtaining the acid, carrying it on [his person] and then stalking the victim before executing the act."
This cruel and deliberate intent is also seen in how women's faces are targeted in an acid attack.
The reason for this, too, stems from patriarchy, because in patriarchal systems a woman's value depends on her beauty, and her face is central to her attractiveness. Dixit notes: "The targeting of the woman's face in an acid attack shows that the perpetrators know that in a patriarchal society like ours, an acid attack survivor will suffer immensely." Shaheen Malik agrees, and points out that if the intention of acid attack perpetrators was to simply harm their victim, they would not universally target her face. She says, "From a young age, boys learn that a woman's face is central to her identity. They know that disfiguring her will reduce her 'value' and rob her of her identity."
And to a large extent, they are successful. Dr Singh describes acid attack survivors in the immediate aftermath of the crime, when they come to the hospital for treatment, as being "totally silent, seeming very depressed, and being in shock". She says, "Acid is so destructive that plastic surgery cannot restore the face after an attack. All that the doctors can do is make the face operate in a functional manner, by say fixing the nose so the person can breathe, mending the mouth so she can eat, and so on. Unfortunately, cosmetic improvement is impossible, and the survivors can never get their original face back."
The solution goes beyond restricting the sale of acid " as championed by #WontBuyWontSell " and judicial reforms, to challenging social norms that foster misogyny and violence directed at women.
As part of HRLN's Campaign Against Acid Attacks, Malik has been conducting programmes on the issue of acid attacks in schools and colleges, and her workshops include consent training along with first aid and medical information. She says she teaches men how to handle rejection in a healthy manner, by showing them that it isn't the end of the world. This, she feels, is necessary for long-term change.
Ritu Saini, an acid attack survivor from Haryana, says that the lack of social acceptance is another major contributing factor in the suffering of acid attack victims. She says, "Perpetrators of acid attacks target the face because they don't want their victim to have a normal life, to go out of the house, to show her face to anyone. But the attacker only does half the work. The rest of it is done by society, which stigmatises survivors instead of supporting and accepting them. After the attack, our face changes and we struggle with our identity, but we are the same person. But society alienates us." Eradicating this stigma and fostering acceptance is key to enable survivors to lead more normal lives, sans fear and shame.
Tanvi is a writer and researcher from Kolkata. Follow her on Instagram.