Sheroes Hangout looks like any average café dotted close to the Taj Mahal. Serving chai and French fries, there's free Wi-fi and it even attracts visitors from Texas to Tonbridge, UK.
The only difference? It's the world's first café run by female acid attack survivors.
Now attracting 80 customers on an average day—mostly tourists—the café is the first initiative of its kind to reintegrate survivors back into mainstream Indian society, according to Atul Kumar, a mechanical engineer and also the manager of Sheroes Hangout.
First opening its doors in 2015, the café is the brainchild of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign and the Chhanv Foundation, an NGO which has sought to eliminate acid violence in India since 2013.
India has long grappled with gender-based violence long before the Delhi gang rape case sparked international outrage. A woman is raped every 16 minutes while a domestic violence case is reported every 4.4 minutes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. And it's hard not to see the irony that Agra, the state where the Taj Mahal immortalizes Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan's love for his wife, is home to the highest incidence of violence against women in the country.
But it is acid that remains the most effective weapon of war against women. According to Acid Survivors International, there are an estimated 1,000 cases every year—although the figure could be much higher considering many are reluctant to report it out of shame or fear. Family, land disputes, or in some cases, dowry demands can drive perpetrators to commit these acts. But it's spurning men's advances, according to Mumbai-based law student and feminist Vishal Manve that accounts for most cases: "When women take that sense of ownership or entitlement away, men tend to attack."
For many of the survivors I spoke to, it's not uncommon for them to feel forced by society to disappear when they're seen as having brought the attacks on themselves. As Laxmi Saa, a New Delhi-based survivor and co-founder of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign, writes: "I learnt to live with the physical pain but what hurt more was the way the society reacted. My own relatives stopped seeing me as did my friends. I stayed indoors for eight years."
Coupled with slim to none job opportunities, it's any wonder this compounds their isolation. Lakshmi, who was attacked when she was 15 after spurning a 32-year-old man's marriage proposal, agrees: "I tried to pick up a job but nobody was willing to hire me. Some said: 'People will get scared if they see you.' Others said they will call back but of course, the phone never rang. Nobody wants to hire acid victims because of the way they look." Lakshmi worked at the café till late last year.
It's little wonder then that the café intended to finally bring these women into the mainstream was initially met with opposition. The response certainly "wasn't neutral or positive towards survivors," Kumar tells Broadly.
India has long relegated these women to the fringes of society while their attacker escapes stigma or punishment, enjoying the freedom that they have denied their victims. Sheroes has thus been instrumental in empowering the five women who staff the cafe to reclaim their visibility.
Each role the survivors are assigned is designed to give them a chance to interact with guests—and offer little room to hide from the public. Neetu, 24, an aspiring chef who was left blinded after own father flung acid on her, offers coffee alongside her mother and fellow survivor Geetu, 46. Another 'shero', Dolly, 16, who was attacked as a 12 year old after refusing the advances of a 25-year-old man. She occasionally manages the library. Rupa, 24, who nearly died from her injuries after her stepmother poured acid on her as she slept, designs dresses on display at the café, while Ritu, 20, manages accounts.
And the café has since branched out from food and drink: it now houses a library, art gallery and even an activism center.
Sheroes has clearly been integral in rebuilding their confidence; the women's ease among the guests is palpable—they're carefree as they pose for selfies and chat amongst them. It's a far cry from the days when they couldn't muster the will to leave their front door.
In shunning the convention of survivors to veil their disfigured faces as Geetu once did, Sheroes is providing a powerful symbol that changes the narrative that survivors are victims. As Dolly puts it: "You burnt my face but not my will to live. You can't throw acid on that."
Perhaps even more applaudable is that these women have challenged—even forced—society to re-evaluate the idea of modern Indian beauty. When survivors lose their aesthetic appeal, their existence is rendered essentially meaningless in a society where beauty is even a bargaining tool in arranged marriages. Annie Zaidi, the author of The Good Indian Girl, tells Broadly that she doesn't expect this to change anytime soon: "Certainly, I believe that people will look beyond their skin and individual attitudes may change [but] I don't think it is that easily done."
It is exactly this that acid attacks set out to achieve: in denying women of their supposedly biggest asset, they in turn rob them of opportunities like finding love. When survivors have married or, like Laxmi Saa, become mothers, they've not only defied their perpetrators' intentions but also shown that beauty transcends the physical. Rashi Jauhri, a New Delhi-based human rights activist concurs: "You can burn their skin but you can't burn their souls. They are warriors."
But while the women have achieved what was once would been thought of as the impossible—reintegration into mainstream Indian society—the battle has not entirely been won.
I ask Kumar whether the government is doing enough to tackle—or at least encourage an open dialogue about—the alarming rise of acid violence.
He insists that it is, despite the biggest breakthrough in terms of policy change owing largely to the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. In July 2013, the Supreme Court regulated the wholesale purchase of acid after years of tireless campaigning and a 27,000 strong signature created by Laxmi. When acid is as cheap and as easily accessible as milk, this is a move worth celebrating.
However, in March 2015, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav described acid attacks on women as "a blot on civilized society." He's since gone on to fund the cost of medical treatment (the equivalent of $6,000) for 51 survivors.
But is Yadav merely performing lip service? After all, bar providing financial assistance, little else seems to have been done to prevent acid violence at its roots. The politician has since maintained it is the wider public's responsibility to prevent these incidents. Rather worryingly, there seems to be little incentive to enact a law in India to deter would-be perpetrators, let alone hold those who've carried it out accountable.
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Conversely, in neighbouring Bangladesh—once home to the highest incidences of the acid attacks in the world and where nearly two out of every three women have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime—much has been done to tackle this. Cases have plummeted in recent years from 496 in 2002 to 58 in 2014, according to the Dhaka-based charity Acid Survivors Foundation.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, acid violence has been recognised as a crime since 2011. When two countries with a historically poor record of violence against women have enacted laws to protect them, why then is India continuing to fail their survivors?
There's a lot to be learned, Zaidi tells Broadly: "It shouldn't take this long. Acid attacks are just one tiny step short of pre-meditated murder. If the intent behind the crime counts for anything in law, then certainly punishment should be much more stringent."
So it is even more of a triumph that Sheroes has single-handedly generated much-needed awareness of the issue. It's set to expand even further afield—a new branch of Sheroes Hangout opened just last month in the city of Nawabs, Lucknow. Kumar says more is set to follow.
And as each day marks a new opportunity for the café to spread its message, it's clear the the Taj Mahal is not alone in adding to the rich history of Agra.