A new comic aims to draw attention to the problem of acid attacks, which disfigure and maim hundreds of women in India every year. The survivors face intense emotional and physical trauma as well as acute ostracism.
"Life is too precious to cry," says Monica Singh. And she simply refuses to see it differently. "I do not insult life by crying about my past over and over again. I am alive and that's what matters."
When the young woman looks at her in the mirror today, she sees a different person than the one several years ago. That's not only due to the fact that she has become older, but also because she now has a new face.
A scarred face that tells what happened to her on this one dark day in her life in the year 2005. When a jilted suitor hurled acid on her in full public glare, causing major burns all over her body. It totally upended her life.
The then 19-year-old Singh, hailing from Delhi, had hitherto been full of dreams and aspirations. She says it will be impossible for her to erase the moment of the acid attack from her memory.
"It's an unforgettable moment in any girl's life. Feeling burnt like we never experienced before, yelling for help in middle of the street, all the people witnessing what was going on, being eye witnesses to a live horror show. Horrible. I don't want to say anything more about it."
Singh says the perpetrator used to stalk her, pressuring her to marry him and leave her family and education behind.
But when she spurned his advances, he turned furious and attacked her with acid.
Monica Singh: 'I am a self-confident, educated and strong woman who left her home for a mission in her life'
In the subsequent years, Monica Singh has been repeatedly hospitalized and undergone numerous surgeries, totaling almost 50. She has received support from her family, particularly her father. Singh's friends have also been as supportive as they can.
The 30-year old now lives in New York, where she is studying fashion marketing. Furthermore, she has founded her own foundation and regularly appears as a motivational speaker.
In the spring of 2016, Monica Singh met filmmaker and producer Ram Devineni when she gave a speech at the United Nations. A few months earlier, Devineni had already met two other survivors of acid attacks. The director was impressed by their strength, and at the same time he was angry.
"What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure," Devineni noted.
In the comic, a group of acid victims fights alongside the female superheroine Priya, a character that helps acid-attack survivors to overcome their fears and escape the tyranny of a demon king
"How society treated them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbors and society determined what they did next. Often they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them," he added.
Devineni wanted to change this, by raising public awareness about the problem. And to that end, he decided to use a comic, named "Priya's Mirror," which was officially presented over the weekend.
In the comic, a group of acid victims fights alongside the female superheroine Priya, a character that helps acid-attack survivors to overcome their fears and escape the tyranny of a demon king. A story ripe with symbolism.
In fact, the character of Priya started with a prequel, called "Priya's Shakti," which tells the story of a gang-rape victim who would later gain strength to fight sex crimes.
"Priya is India's first female superheroine and a survivor of rape. She was created after the 2012 gang rape on a bus. Her mission is to attack patriarchy and create empathy for rape survivors and survivors of gender-based violence," said Devineni. Priya fights against India's prevailing patriarchal social norms that encourage discrimination against women.
With over half a million downloads, "Priya's Shakti" has been an international success, underlined the director. "The main character, Priya, resonated with audiences and was written about in 400 news publications reaching nearly 20 million readers."
The producers hope the comic could be particularly useful for educating teenagers and young men about gender rights and respect for women
An educational tool
"Priya's Mirror" is the first comic to have received financial assistance from the World Bank. It is freely available for download on various platforms and in different languages, including Hindi, English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. And it's expected to be released in other languages as well.
The producers hope it could be particularly useful for educating teenagers and young men about gender rights and respect for women. "Teenagers are at a critical age when they are learning about relationships and developing their opinions of each other. So, this comic book series is a powerful tool to talk about gender issues," stressed Devineni.
The comic is released together with an app, which offers a possibility to create profile pictures for social networks such as Facebook or WhatsApp resembling the faces of acid-attack victims. The intention behind this is to raise awareness and stimulate public discourse about the issue.
Devineni: 'What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure'
Around 1,500 girls and women across the world become victims of acid attacks annually, according to aid organizations such as Acid Surivors Trust International (ASTI). The real figure could be even higher. "Often, acid-attack survivors do not tell others that they were attacked with acid because of the stigma attached to it. Rather they say they were burned in a cooking fire or something else," pointed out Devineni. But others – like Monica Singh – do the opposite.
A tough task
"I never hide myself, but I definitely understand the feeling of being inhibited, the fear of being viewed as an abnormal person in society," said Monica Singh. She decided to face off the situation: "I have never allowed myself to be labeled as an 'unfortunate girl,'" she noted. That's why, perhaps, Monica Singh is among the few women whose faces feature on the cover of the comic "Priya's Mirror."
They were drawn by artist Dan Goldman – not an easy task for him. "Creating the artwork required a delicate hand for my part: I didn't want to render the acid victims' scars in any kind of exploitative way, but at the same time, it was essential to show the degree of scarring endured, otherwise the issue we're addressing loses it impact," Goldman said, adding: "I struggled with this for some time..."
The artist ultimately found a way out of his dilemma. "I found out that the style was in rendering the women as normal as possible and then adding their scars last. This way, I was able to make them feel whole and give them a kind of poetry as women, rather than addressing the scars first and people second.
"I did send my drawings to them before the book was published to make sure they were comfortable with how I was portraying them and was happy to take any kind of notes from them," he explained.
"It's already a very sensitive issue centered on their appearance and violence, and therefore the last thing I'd want to do is portray them in a way that made them unhappy or upset," he added.
Monica Singh, however, is very content with the response for their work. "Everyone loves this book; we just need references of real-life heroines for girls and young women. And projecting ourselves the way we are is more valuable and impactful."
Not 'a victim'
Singh has always remained true to herself, both in the old as well as in the new life. She's got a different face, but she's still Monica – the one that will always stand her ground. "My parents say that I have always had this never give up attitude."
She explains that for acid-attack survivors like her, it's extremely important that they accept themselves for who they are. If they fail to do it, there wouldn't be any progress in their lives, she said. Singh adamantly refuses to regard herself as a victim.
"I don't see the word victim as an accurate description of me. I am a self-confident, educated and strong woman who left her home for a mission in her life, and now she is on her journey… I am more than a survivor," she said, stressing that: "I am a motivational speaker, fashion designer, stylist, marketing expert, philanthropist and a model, among other things."
I even walked the runway at New York fashion week, she pointed out.
When asked if she's happy with her life, she said: "I won't say I am a happy person, but I am definitely a very funny person. I did learn how to deal with the situation. I know my strength is my confidence and education. If a person has a good heart and knowledge, I believe everyone finds that person beautiful."