Rupa was just 15 when her stepmother threw acid in her face after an argument about money.
“I could not see anything. I could not open my eyes, I was screaming,” she said to CNN. “But no one came to help me. My stepmother watched me suffering.”
Unfortunately Rupa’s experience is not uncommon, especially in her native India where there have been over 200 reported assaults this year already. Worldwide, there are about 2,500 reported cases each year but experts say acid attacks are vastly under-reported thanks to the shame and social stigma of being a victim.
It took Rupa three years before she could bring herself to look in the mirror again and several more years to feel comfortable going out in public. But now the vivacious 22-year-old has done one better: She’s started her own clothing line and has used herself and other victims of acid attacks to model them. Since she was a child she’d dreamed of working in fashion and she was determined that nothing would hold her back.
She currently lives in Chhanv, a home and rehab center for victims of acid attacks which is funded by the group Stop Acid Attacks. The founder of the charity Alok Dixit supports Rupa completely and hopes this will have a much broader reach. “We want the acid attack survivors to come out of hiding and tell their stories. It is OK to show your face,” he said.
Rahul Saharan, a professional photographer, jumped at the opportunity to do the photo shoot. He wanted to help the fight against acid attacks and show the women how beautiful they are. “In our society, there are lots of things said to the girls — you are not beautiful, you won’t get married because your skin is not white and fair,” Rahul said. “I want to change the perception of beauty — tell people that the real beauty is not about having a fair skin.”
Rupa hopes to use the attention generated by the one-of-a-kind modeling campaign to earn money to open up her own fashion boutique so she can continue making clothes and inspiring women, no matter what obstacles they’ve had to overcome. And yet, I must admit, that reading the stories of the women featured in the shoot made me realize that every hard thing that’s ever happened to me in my life is nothing compared to what these women have endured and then conquered to get where they are. They are definitely more than your average success story.
I feel like this is what I want the Dove beauty campaign to be like — it’s nice to tell women who are already conventionally pretty that they should feel beautiful but it feels more meaningful to help us find the beauty in the ugliest of situations.
“When you see pictures used in commercials, you just see and forget them after some time, but when you see these pictures, you feel in love with them,” Rahul says. “You want to look at them again and again.” He’s right, the light that is in these women will stay with me, and I daresay everyone who sees them, for a long, long time.