Nothing prepared me for what I saw that day. I was in a hospital in one of India’s major cities, waiting to take my grandmother to see her doctor. A flurry of activity erupted at the entrance. A girl, possibly in her late twenties, was being led by her father. His face was drawn and drained of blood, while her face was hissing and melting.
Someone had thrown a canister-full of acid on her face.
Her father was torn painfully between filling out the forms and begging for attention for his daughter; his mind wrought with a million thoughts.
Welcome to India: where this is a common sight across the majority of the country; a common occurrence – only sometimes reported. Acid attacks are often carried out as hate crimes or crimes of revenge. Women are usually victims of acid attacks, especially when they reject the advances of a men, or during domestic violence. Coupled with the ease of access to corrosive liquids and acids across the counter and a state of lawlessness, it is easy to see the key drivers in all that makes acid attacks rampant.
However these things are only explanations of the symptoms. The ease of availability of resources facilitates the commission of the crime, but it does not create the crime itself.
In one of Hinduism’s greatest epics, The Ramayan, there is a character called Surpanakha who is the sister of the main antagonist, Raavan. Legend has it that she desired to marry the main protagonist, Ram, who refused her proposal with the excuse that he was married. She then sought his brother out with the same request, but he rejected her with a dismissal. She noticed the two brothers making fun of her appearance and when he chopped off her nose, she was outraged. Surpanakha set the ball rolling, for the act of revenge that Raavan launched by abducting Ram’s wife made the rest of the epic unfold. Reality or otherwise, the Ramayan is looked upon by many Hindus as a revered text, sacred for the values it endorses and holy for the religiosity it proffers. Striking at the very root, it is a nightmarish reality to note that the defiling of a woman’s appearance is endorsed as appropriate. To any rational mind, questions such as these would not seem out of place: What gave him the right to cut her nose? What gave him the authority to lay a finger on another woman? Was expressing her love so wrong?
Of course, this is not to insinuate that everyone that carries out an acid attack is inspired by this story. For all we know, they might not know the story. However what the story shows, is that there is a simmering undercurrent of a sense of entitlement that culminates in a right to engage in vandalism. What the story implies is that it is okay for a man to defile a woman’s face; if her brother decides to wreck havoc in the name of revenge, he shall lose the battle simply because the protagonist is the hero at the end of the day. What the story indicates is that there is an understanding that a woman does not have worth – and that that worth can be undermined by defacing her.
What makes it so easy to deface a woman with acid? Taking in to consideration that there is no legal instrument specifically outlawing acid attacks in India, at most the perpetrator can be charged under the law for causing grievous hurt amounting to murder if the attacked succumbs to the injuries. Laws without teeth and the availability of acid over the counter unregulated are links in the chain of events that encourage acid attacks. These are the extrinsic elements; factors that only augment the root cause which creates a strong link between a woman’s appearance and the “worth” that is attributed to her. The action of defacing a fellow human being for whatever reason must be backed with a warped ideology that sanctions it. The reasoning that underlies acid attacks is that a woman’s value is aesthetic, for as feminist literature would point out, “men are instrumental and women are ornamental”. This is reinforced by the media, by our own choices and judgments and by people around us. Defacing a woman is the next thing to rape in denouncing and undermining her value and worth. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that the survivor of an acid attack lives not only with the burns on her body, but also those on her mind.
It is undoubtedly easy to point out that India (and other countries where acid attacks are prominent) remains a thriving hotbed of shameless impunity and abject disregard for women. The global struggle for gender equality is still a climb uphill – and still remains one of the biggest moral fights in the world today. But here’s the fact that we are all forgetting: these vandals, these people that wield canisters of acid, are all effectively clear in their understanding that a woman “deserves” ill-treatment. Although society acknowledges its immorality, they still chime in with support through silence. As a nation, as a society, as this “intelligentsia” that we love calling ourselves, we have failed to understand that this culture of impunity thrives because of our tacit consent: through our “she-deserved-it” speeches and words of degradation towards women.
 “Beauty is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body” (1995), by Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler,