Not far from the white marble mausoleum, Taj Mahal, built in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in Agra, about 200 kms from New Delhi, stands Sheroes Hangout, the world’s first cafe run by acid victims, who were either spurned by their lovers for rejecting their advances or marriage proposals or by step-mothers or others.
Opened in December 2014, it attracted more than 5,000 customers in the first six months, which encouraged the founders of the non-profit organisation, Chhanv Foundation, that came out of the ‘Stop Acid Attack Campaign’ to open two more cafes in Lucknow and Udaipur. More outlets will be expected soon in other cities. Sheroes Hangout was awarded on the International Women’s day on 8 March by President Pranab Mukherjee, for its unique cause.
The menu card does not mention the price of the food items but instead it says, PAY AS YOU WISH, in big letters. It has now become the preferred destination for celebrities. It also organises several programmes on social issues in the cafe. The five women employed in the cafe, who have undergone nightmarish experiences, want to inspire others who live through similar situations.
Ritu Saini, 20, was attacked five years ago by her cousin whose romantic advances she rejected. After 10 reconstructive surgeries, that were “as painful as the attack itself,” Ritu lost her left eye. “Before Sheroes, I used to cover my face,” Saini said. “I wanted to know why he did this to me.” Now, as the cafe’s floor manager, she walks confidently which encourages other victim women to do the same. “I want every girl to believe in herself,” she says.
Neetu Mahour, 23, greets customers wearing a white shirt with Stop Acid Attacks written in bold red letters on the back. Acid was thrown into her eyes by her father 20 years ago, which left her almost blind. Her mother Geeta, who also works in the cafe, was injured in the attack, which killed her infant sister Kishna.
“We show them that nothing is wrong with them,” said Chhanv Foundation founder Alok Dixit, 30. His team of 10 work with victims individually to speak out. The team also encourage women to be proud of the way they look. Initially survivors were reluctant to join the cafe but now they walk-in for job. The three cafes together now employ 21 acid attack survivors.
“My stepmother threw acid on my face when I was just 14 years old. Since then I had been holed inside my uncle’s house, embarrassed and afraid of the outside world. Sheroes changed my outlook towards life. I no longer cover my face and confidently serve my customers,” said Roopa Saa, 24, assistant manager.
Laxmi Saa, 29, suffered agonising injuries at the age of 15 at the hands of a man more than twice her age because she rejected him. She had been confined at home since then, but her campaigning work helped to find love in Dixit, and now they are proud parents of daughter Pihu. ‘I never imagined that I would become a mother. It’s nature’s gift. It has brought unexplainable happiness. I see her and think ‘how can something so beautiful be my daughter? It’s a happiness I never thought I’d feel,’ she said.
She recalls the incident. “I spotted 32-year-old Naeem Khan, one of my friend’s brothers, while I was shopping in a market, but suddenly, the woman he was with pushed me to the ground and splashed a cold liquid across my face.”
A taxi driver came forward and poured water over her face and took her to a hospital. “I felt as if someone had set my whole body on fire. The skin was just coming off, it was like dripping, from my hands and from my face,” Laxmi said. In 2013, the Supreme Court of India acted on a petition filed by Laxmi and directed state governments to formulate a policy to regulate over-the-counter sale of acid in India.
In March 2014, Laxmi was invited to the International Woman of Courage Celebration in Washington DC by Michelle Obama. She was one of 10 women honoured for courageous and selfless efforts advocating for peace, justice, human rights and women’s equality – often in the face of great personal risk.
And on her return home, she was offered her own weekly talk show for acid-attack survivors on Indian TV channel, News Express. Then, in January she was named as the star of an India designer’s clothing campaign called the ‘Face of Courage.’
“We have decided to live together until we die. But we are challenging the society by not getting married,” Laxmi said. Alok added: “We are not going to follow the norms that the society approves of. We will prove that our love does not need a name. Our love is about understanding and support.” Laxmi and Alok continue to work together for the benefit of acid attack survivors.