Why Should An Acid Attack Survivor Feel The ‘Deathless Shame’ The Karnataka HC Speaks Of?

Society shames women who don't fit into a fixed idea of beauty, and more so those who suffer scars of violence on their face, like an acid attack. Why should the shame be hers?

Society shames women who don’t fit into a fixed idea of beauty, and more so those who suffer scars of violence on their face, like an acid attack. Why should the shame be hers?

Acid attack is essentially a violation of the bodily autonomy and consent of the survivor, then why should it be perceived as a “deep sense of deathless shame” for the survivor, as has been set out in the recent Karnataka High Court judgment.

In the year 2020 Bollywood gave us some hard-hitting women-centric movies, one among them was Chhapaak. The movie was a sensitive and poignant portrayal of the journey of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal.

The movie remains etched in my memory for several reasons, but the biggest reason being the survivor walking ahead to face the world without the veil covering her face. It drove across a very important message: a woman is more than her physical appearance; acid can mar her appearance, not her spirit. It was a wake-up call for the nation at large which had been viewing acid attack survivors as pitiable and hapless. But has the positive portrayal really brought change?

A recent Karnataka High Court judgment makes me wonder. The court upheld the life sentence of the attacker, but despite this, the judgment was still upsetting. While condemning the act, the court used the words ‘deathless shame’ about the survivor. This reminds us of the words “zinda laash” used by late Sushma Swaraj for rape survivors, which plays into the stereotype we have imbibed from Hindi films. A court propagating a similar stereotypical mindset is not Ok.

What is the case?

The accused in the present case had proposed marriage to the survivor, who turned him down. The accused had then thrown acid on her on a public road, to take revenge.

The sessions court had sentenced the accused to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,00,000/ – and observed that he had committed the act in anger and with an intent to prevent the survivor from marrying anyone else, as he had not been able to marry her. He then appealed to the Karnataka HC which upheld the conviction given by the sessions court.

However, some of the comments made by the Court in the process of delivering the judgment were clearly a case of benevolent sexism, rather than highlighting the survivor’s right to bodily autonomy and justice, and the gravity of the crime of acid attack, that it intended to do.

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Why should an acid attack victim hide her face from society?

The comments by the court reminded me of my mother’s strict warning to me as a young girl to maintain my distance from the gas stove, when she was frying something. The warning continued almost till the time I got married. The only explanation I got from her was she couldn’t let her daughter get scarred or scalded with burns from the hot oil. Years later when I questioned her fear, she told me about a cousin who faced ostracisation and discrimination, because of burn marks on her hand.

Shocked as I was to hear that society can be that ruthless to a woman, I took solace in the fact that it was decades ago. But reading the line “not merely physical injury but the deep sense of some deathless shame. She has to hide her face to the Society” I was reminded that not much has changed.

Acid attack is a painful experience for a survivor. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about that, about the sense of violation that she feels? Should a woman who has already endured unimaginable physical pain, be subject to further mental trauma by being subjected to shame? And why, when the ‘shame’ should be of the perpetrator who committed a violent act?

When an authority like the court pronounces that an acid attack survivor has to hide her face, is it not being set out like a norm? Why should she have to do this when she is trying to bounce back after a brutal attack on her, and is moving ahead with all her strength? If anything, she should be encouraged to hold her head up with confidence, not be pushed further into the abyss by being made to hide behind a veil.

Let’s look at the second part of the statement made by the court

The court also said, “the same cannot be tolerated by any father, mother, husband, children of the women, etc and society at large”

“Aurat ki izzat karni chahiye, kyun ki woh kisi ki maa hain, behan hain, beti hain” (respect a woman, because she is somebody’s mother, daughter, sister…). If you have lived in India and have been following our movies and television serials, you would have lost count of the times you would have heard this line, not just in Hindi but in a whole range of regional languages.

Despite this line being a cliché, every time I hear it, I wonder why should a woman be respected only because of her status as a mother, sister, daughter, etc. Can’t she be valued and respected for the simple fact that she is a human and every human deserves to be treated with basic decency, empathy, and respect?

This observation raises another question: are women who’re not ‘related’ by blood or marriage to someone of any lesser significance than those with a family? If we as a society rightfully want to see our women empowered, is it not time we considered women as rightful individuals, and not as someone belonging to a father, brother, or husband?

In the recent past there have been brave acid attack survivors like Zakira and Laxmi Agarwal to name a few, who have set it out clearly that they don’t need society’s pity, and neither are they going to hide themselves; all they want is support. So, let us pledge to give an acid attack survivor our support and imbibe from their strength, rather than normalizing a life behind the veil for them.

Image source: a still from the film Chhapaak

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About the Author

Parvadavardini Sethuraman

A dreamer by passion and an Advocate by profession. Mother to an ever energetic and curious little princess. I long to see the day when Gender equality is a reality in the world. read more...

89 Posts | 319,139 Views

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