NEW YORK—“At age 19,” Monica Singh says, “I died. Then I was reborn.”
In June 2005, while driving her car in Lucknow in Northern India, two men on bikes doused her face and body with sulfuric acid. The two, later convicted, burned 65% of her body and obliterated her face—reconstruction of which took nine years and 46 operations. The attackers had been hired by her rebuffed suitor (not convicted). Singh was confined at first to a remote, cage-like structure that sealed her in from potential germ carriers, but made her feel like she was “an animal in a zoo,” or a woman in her coffin.
“I am not the only one who suffered like this,” says the now 29-year-old, sitting across the table from me in the gloomy Times Square café near where Singh works as a fashion designer. That is her day job. At night, she is a gender rights activist.
“There are more than 5,000 girls all over the world who have suffered acid attacks,” Singh says. She ticks off Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as India in South Asia, but also mentions countries like Colombia, Cambodia, Russia, even Italy. (On the Home Page of her Mahendra Singh Foundation website one sees a photo of Gessica Notaro, a former Miss Italy finalist who was blinded in one eye by acid hurled at her by a former boyfriend.)
After her final years in India, Singh migrated with much publicity to America in 2014 to study fashion design at Parsons in Manhattan. Singh says she attained a kind of celebrity status, because of all of her appearances in newspapers and on TV, telling her story and speaking out against gender violence.
“So, you became a survivor celebrity,” I say, “in a country of Bollywood celebrities.”
Singh laughs, the kind of hearty laugh that surprised me when I first heard it. How could a body that carried so much pain also carry such laughter?
“When I walked around Delhi, I’d get stopped in the street by people wanting to talk,” Singh says. “They would say how much they admire my strength. Especially the young girls, many of whom feel trapped in the same box I was able to open. The box of being a woman who tolerates oppression. The girls feel they need permission to free themselves. I tell them, ‘What kind of permission! To hell with that!’ Everyone has in them the power to be free. Some realize it earlier than others. Some realize it through others.”
The terrible scarring left by acid attacks comes with the social stigma not only of being unsightly, but also unmarriageable. In Singh’s case, there is a multi-layered puffiness from all the surgeries, but no actual scarring. Her father, Narendra Singh, was wealthy and willing to pay for her surgeries. Many of the affected women are from poor and middle class families, and unable to afford reconstructive surgery.
The anti-gender violence movement has gained steam since the infamous bus rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012, called by Indian-American filmmaker, Ram Devineni, the Selma of the Indian gender rights movement. The acid attack survivors reflect with unsparing clarity the moral disfigurement of their perpetrators.
Though she hasn’t been back to India since she left, Singh is still connected to the ever-expanding body of gender action groups. I am struck by the name of one group in particular: Make Love Not Scars. Singh tells me she is vice-president of that group. It began as a film project of Rea Sharma, an Indian from the UK who came to film a story on acid attack survivors, and stayed on to make waves as an activist.
“This group and other groups like Stop Acid Attacks have as their primary goal changing the consciousness of Indians around this issue,” Singh says. “And in India, attitudes are changing rapidly, especially among young people. The millennials are in the forefront. They were out in the streets protesting when Jyoti Singh was raped, and now they are asking their parents hard questions about gender attitudes, and they are pushing the Baby Boomers. Many people are still stuck in mythology and tradition, but there is no taboo against asking anything anymore.”
Singh was enlisted as a consultant for a new kind of progressive mythology that took the form of a comic book series whose hero, Priya, a poor village girl, was gang-raped, then incarnated and empowered by the Goddess Parvati. Priya, Devineni’s creation, was a media sensation in India read by hundreds of thousands of people.
In the second book of this series, Priya incites the rebellion of acid attack victims against their tyrannical “protector,” Ahankar. Like Singh, I found the story somewhat simplistic, if emotionally stirring. But she felt it was a good way of reaching schoolgirls and schoolboys as they were beginning to think about these issues.
What most seemed to displease her was the emphasis on a single hero, Priya, when you have so many women who have survived in large part because of their own heroism.
Singh tends by nature to be inclusive. Her Mahendra Singh Foundation welcomes the outreach of gender-abused women from Europe as well as Asia. For those in need of counseling, Singh and her volunteers try to connect them with psychologists willing to offer their services free of charge.
“Though the attacks happened on a single day, in the minds of survivors they happen every day.”
During the silences in our conversation, I do find myself wondering: when she is not designing clothes or engaged in foundation activities, which she hopes one day will be able to finance facial surgeries and scholarships for survivors, how does she navigate the fire demon of her first death?