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India

In India, A Cafe For Acid Attack Survivors Serves Pure Courage

Activists fighting the social plague of acid attacks against women in India have opened a new cafe in Agra staffed exclusively by survivors who have been disfigured in this way.

In India, A Cafe For Acid Attack Survivors Serves Pure Courage
Aletta Andre

AGRA — Geeta, along with her two baby daughters, was attacked by her husband, who was drunk and angry because they didn't have a son.

"We were sleeping. He threw it while we slept," Geeta says of the acid attack. "My youngest girl died. He threw it over the three of us."

Her daughter Neetu, now 23, survived, but she is almost blind and is illiterate. For his barbaric offense, her husband was jailed for just two months. And when he was released, Geeta says she had no other choice but to take back this abusive husband, who still drinks and hardly works.

"Nobody helped us," she says. "They laughed at us. People make jokes. I used to work as a sweeper, but we cannot get by on that."

But she now has new hope because Geeta is the kitchen manager at the new Sheroes Hangout café in Agra, India. "It's a new chance," she says. "If we work hard, we can move forward."

Hardika, a local volunteer, takes me on a tour of the café, which also houses a library and features some of the work of other survivors that clients can purchase. The walls are covered with colorful paintings, and the café is filled with trendy bamboo furniture. When the doors open later this month, Hardika says there will be lots to offer.

"These dresses are designed by Rupa," she says, pointing at the work of another acid attack survivor. "She loves stitching, and that's why she will be running her own boutique from here. Then, after that, we have a library, with basically books related to feminism and women empowerment. So people can come, read the newspaper, have a coffee. So yes, I expect this to become a tourist hangout, and the youth of Agra can also come here and enjoy."

A cultural plague

The café is the idea of a Delhi-based campaign called Stop Acid Attacks, which raised $25,000 via crowdfunding to rent and renovate the space.

At one of the tables sits Alok Dixit, a former journalist who founded the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. "The idea is to make them financially independent," Dixit says of the victims. "Our survivors were covering their faces, they were very shy, they were very uncomfortable. Just because their face was disfigured, their skills were ignored. They were not given jobs. This hangout is a chance to get to know about them. If you give them a chance, they can rock. Don't value a face, value a person."

Dixit estimates that there are at least 250 such attacks a year in India, and the victims are overwhelmingly women.

He says it's much too easy for people to buy cheap acid at corner shops. And though the Supreme Court ruled last year that acid sales should be restricted, not much has changed.

A video made by the group shows one of their volunteers buying acid in a corner shop.
Dixit has sent it to the authorities hoping they will act.

"This is about culture, not religion," he says. "There are many Muslims who throw acid, there are many Hindus who throw acid. Because in their culture, they don't treat women as human beings. They are someone's property. When that property starts refusing things, they feel that they should teach her a lesson. So this is the sad reality of the society — but slowly, it can change."

Ritu, 19, became a victim in a family property dispute, so her aunt hired two men to attack her. From a motorcyle, the men attacked Ritu in broad daylight in a crowded marketplace.

"I called for help, but nobody helped me," Ritu says. "It was very painful, and I still have to go for operations."

She hasn't been able to go to school since the assault, and her attacker and 13 accomplices are still on trial.

Meanwhile, Ritu is learning how to live with her new face. In Sheroes Hangout, she runs the library, which is filled with magazines and inspiring books for customers to read.

"First I thought: "What will people think if they see me?"" she says. "So I was hiding my face until I joined the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. Now I show my face and think that whoever wants to talk to me can do that, or not. I'm happy in Sheroes. I want to tell every survivor who now stays in or hides her face to come outside and fight for a new life. Only then something can happen."

Geeta, Ritu and Dixit are hoping the café will turn a profit within a few months so that the survivors can start earning a salary.

And if they succeed, they plan to open many more such places all over India, where acid attack survivors can demonstrate their worth and proudly show their faces.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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