By Anshuman Singh:
Sheroes Hangout Café & Reach-Out centre (Asha Jyoti Chapter) is located opposite Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Sthal, near Lucknow Metro Office, Gomti Nagar, Lucknow. There is one in Agra also.
Rani, Anshu, Farah, Shanti and Preeti. Five acid attack survivors, five incredible stories of lives shattered, but refusing to break. Theirs are stories of unimaginable pain and an indomitable spirit. All are proud workers at Sheroes Hangout Café in Lucknow, the labour of love and commitment of a campaign that has a sole motive: #StopAcidAttacks.
A place for acid attack survivors in India, this Indian café at Lucknow has made itself a place of refuge and recovery for India’s acid attack fighters.
After establishing themselves close to world’s biggest symbol of love in Agra, they finally got their second café inaugurated this International Women’s Day on March 8, 2016, in the ‘City of Nawabs, Kababs & Adab’ – Lucknow – after CM Akhilesh Yadav made a surprise visit to this first of its kind café at Agra in 2015.
I interviewed Alok Dixit, co-founder of Sheroes Café and Chhanv Foundation and also a key person behind the campaign team of #StopAcidAttacks. Alok’s life partner Laxmi too is an acid attack survivor and the face of the #StopAcidAttacks campaign in India and abroad as well. Both run Chhanv Foundation and Sheroes Hangout Café together with other team members.
Anshuman Singh (AS): How did Sheroes Hangout Café happen in Lucknow?
Alok Dixit (AD): I was sleeping and somewhere outstation when a call from the Café at Agra woke me up. The staff told me the Chief Minister had arrived at our café and wanted to talk to me. Before I could understand what was happening, he instantly asked me on the phone to open a similar café at Lucknow as well and offered his assistance for the same. Maybe he was impressed by the initiatives taken and efforts made by our NGO (Chhanv Foundation). We were asked to choose an appropriate government space for our café in Lucknow and he made sure that the UP government provided it to us for free. And here we are today at Sheroes Hangout Café & Reach-Out centre. A readers’ café, an activism centre, a reach-out station, all with a crew of six braveheart acid attack fighters at your service.
AS: When and how did the idea of such a café come to your mind?
AD: It was around 2013 that we, a group of friends started this campaign against the acid attack violence named #StopAcidAttacks. During that period of continuous struggle, we found that acid attack ‘victims’ were shown the least concern be it in jobs, education or even by the government, police and courts. And it was then that we decided to turn our campaign into a registered organisation for the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors – Chhanv Foundation – in 2014. While helping them to rehabilitate and providing them jobs, we found that many of them lacked professional skills and so we thought that a café could be the only place where both the skilled and non-skilled ones can work and earn together besides spreading awareness to other people about acid attacks.
Thus, the idea of Sheroes Hangout came up. A venue where new wave feminism evolves every day to overcome the challenges faced by women in South Asian societies and cultures. We started Sheroes Hangout in Agra on a test run basis first on October 19, 2014, without any support from corporates or the government. We asked the common people of our society to contribute to our project and help us in setting up a business venture for survivors of acid attacks in India since we ourselves didn’t have any business expertise. We also asked some of our friends in India to donate money if they could just for some backup funds to ensure that our business and idea didn’t fail. By God’s grace, many people from different sections of society came forward to help us. And finally, the café was officially opened on December 10, 2014, in Agra. It was started with crowd-funding.
AS: Why the title ‘Sheroes Hangout’?
AD: The Sheroes here are women who have fought to survive after receiving a debilitating blow to their appearance and self-esteem by some members of our own society. These women are on the way to becoming true fighters, who have the courage to live, work and walk in the midst of society and force the society to re-evaluate its norms about beauty and appearance. At Sheroes, the ideas of beauty and importance of appearance are often the talking point.
Our café in Agra has now evolved into a campaign to generate awareness about acid attacks and help survivors live normal lives, in the midst of a society that harbours one prejudice too many about beauty, especially when it comes to women. We want to deliver the same message now in Lucknow too. The presence of Lucknowites in this café is not important just because we want to give them an ambience they never had before but also because the isolation these women feel after the attack might be worse than the physical injury. We want to change the perception that a person is less ‘valuable’ based on their appearance.
AS: How does Sheroes Hangout help these women to become self-reliant?
AD: Chhanv Foundation’s campaign #StopAcidAttacks provides our fighters with business exposure. What’s better to bring back that confidence than going out in this mean world and snatching some gold for oneself? A café run only by our fighters provides them with that unique opportunity to explore their strengths, their business acumen, to practice their skills and test them against the strong forces of the free market and the fickle human will. The ladies here run the restaurant, sell their hard worked art pieces and maintain a debate room that makes it a haven for the elements of change to come and discuss and meet like-minded people. I want the people of Lucknow to come meet these strong ladies and be inspired, draw courage and, as in the lines of the fading legend, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
AS: How is Sheroes Hangout a better aid to any acid attack survivor than any other place?
AD: At Sheroes Hangout, survivors of acid attacks can get a job which matches their own interest and skill, which most of them don’t get because society often treats them as ‘victims’. And since the idea of this space has evolved from a campaign for acid attack survivors, the ideas of beauty and appearance in society remain the epicentre of discussions and programmes run from here.
AS: What change has Sheroes Hangout made in the lives of these women?
AD: For that, I believe you should particularly interview my crew members. Their words would mean more to me. (Smiles).
And with this, I interacted with each of the five acid attack fighters who work in Sheroes Hangout Lucknow to know how they view their lives now. What I discovered was quite shocking but also inspiring. These acid attacks were acts of revenge for no fault of these women. What is worse is that not only did most of them not receive any government aid, most of the attackers have not been brought to justice. However, the confidence with which they spoke was reassuring.
Rani, Anshu and Farah have been associated with Sheroes Hangout for a while now. They used to work at the cafe in Agra before moving here. Shanti and Preeti are late additions to the crew but seem to be loving it here.
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Uttar Pradesh ranks highest in terms of acid attacks. Alok Dixit, who is from UP (Kanpur) himself, chose to start this initiative against acid attacks from Agra and Lucknow, two major cities of UP. After so many efforts by people like Alok, the UP government provided free treatment to several acid attack survivors. But a majority of acid attack victims across India have either not been given their promised compensation or haven’t even been offered anything. Even many of the acid attack fighters working in Sheroes Café still await government relief. It must be noted, unfortunately, that acid is still sold freely in the markets without any restrictions on anyone. And this is going on even after so many judgements from courts. The war against open sale of acid by the campaign team #StopAcidAttacks continues. Sadly, the Indian judiciary has failed miserably to punish a majority of the culprits in acid attack crimes. The interaction with the ‘Sheroes’ here clearly shows how much justice they have been given.
Chhanv Foundation is still working hard every day and night to make our society a better place for acid attack fighters. They are also opening their third Sheroes Hangout Café in Udaipur this month.
All photos shared by Anshuman Singh.