When I saw my face for the first time after surgery, I cried for hours. I struggled to accept this new reality. I felt like an intruder in my own skin. Whenever people looked at me, I saw the discomfort in their eyes.
MUMBAI, India — One horrible night, on December 16, 2012, a group of men brutally assaulted, tortured, and raped a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in the national capital of India, New Delhi. Thirteen days later, she died in her hospital bed. The girl’s name was Nirbhaya, which means fearless. Upon hearing that horrible story, my mind flooded with memories of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my ex-husband 12 years ago. Little did I know, those stories would someday become intertwined.
Back in 2000, my then-husband and brother-in-law harassed me relentlessly for money. When my parents failed to meet their demands, my husband attacked me. He cornered me, beat me up, and tortured me, before dousing me in kerosene and setting me on fire. I suffered severe burns that covered 80 percent of my face and spent two and a half months in the hospital. My injuries were so bad, doctors performed surgery on me every four months. I felt absolutely shattered, uncertain about what my future held for me.
After the hospital discharged me, I went home to my abusive husband. However, nothing was ever the same. When I saw my face for the first time after surgery, I cried for hours. I struggled to accept this new reality. I felt like an intruder in my own skin. Whenever people looked at me, I saw the discomfort in their eyes. It became hard for me to even be around family without feeling insecure. It felt as though my husband had stolen everything from me, including my identity. I had nothing left to take.
I still needed to go to the hospital every few weeks for check-ups and surgeries. Doctors performed a nasal surgery, where they inserted two tubes in my nose so I could breathe, and to give it shape. However, one day, my husband beat me again, pulling one of the breathing tubes out. My nose became permanently deformed. I still cannot breathe properly from the right side.
I knew I needed to get out of that house, but I had nowhere to go. Shortly after, my husband left me penniless and bedridden. Though I had no money, I still had some jewelry I could sell. I asked my parents if I could stay with them. They told me not to come to their house, saying I was no longer their daughter. I felt completely alone and destroyed.
Every time my husband beat me, my parents saw the visible scars he left on me. They never once encouraged me to leave, nor did they ask about our situation. They wanted me to continue living with him. That is how many Indian women are trained. Girls in India are often seen as currency. Once wedded, parents lose any right to their daughters and their doors remain closed.
A popular saying exists in India, “Once wedded, girls can only leave their husband’s house in a coffin.” My parents said if I went back to their house, my younger brother and sister would not get good marriage proposals and their life would be spoiled. My parents basically left me to die, but I decided to fight back.
The four and a half years I spent with my husband left me with no confidence or identity of my own. I decided right then and there to rebuild my life. Once I returned to my old hometown, I packed all my jewelry and sold it to rent a house. I struggled to find a place to stay, as no one seemed to want me due to my injuries and the fact that I was a single woman.
Everywhere I went, people declined my application. Luckily, I met a Naval officer who seemed touched by my story. He agreed to rent his house to me and encouraged me to get back on my feet. I stayed in that house for two years before I saved up and eventually moved to my own house.
I graduated in the arts and got a teacher’s training degree. Due to the scars on my face, nobody offered me a job. I took up tarot card reading as a way to make some money. One day, my life changed completely when I took part in a widely acclaimed play called Nirbhaya in 2013. The play’s director Yael Faber obtained my contact information from a hair stylist I knew. I worked with her on a campaign called One Billion Rising, where we told the stories of women who suffered abuse.
The play narrated the ghastly 2012 Delhi gang rape, along with other stories of abuse suffered by women. He told me he wanted me to enact scenes from my life. It felt surreal. I accepted the opportunity, taking it as a catharsis and a chance to raise awareness. I performed in 300 shows, reliving my past through each performance. The door of those painful memories, which I had closed years before, now reopened. It felt incredibly challenging to relive it on stage then go home and be alone with those thoughts.
The only way I kept myself motivated was to think about helping other victims. After the shows, people came and told me their stories about abuse. I began to feel confident speaking out. It touched me deeply. The play came to a halt in 2016, and I went back to tarot reading. I also started my own NGO to help women in small villages. The more projects I took part in, the more at peace I felt. I decided to become a television announcer to bring more diversity and inclusion to the media landscape.
Much has changed in my life, but I still get asked about my story by inquisitive people on the streets, on public transportation, and in social media. I cannot answer everyone because I do not want to relive those memories constantly.
People ask me how it feels and how I survived, but there are no answers. In a society where beauty is defined by the physical features of women, how can someone like me find a place? I do not have the facial attributes deemed beautiful. Does that make me unworthy? Once, I felt embarrassed and hid myself away. Now I see my face as a symbol of strength and resilience.
I still feel sad to be rejected by my family, but I fight each day for my place in society. I continue to fight for women, and against the system that devalues them at every turn. India has a long way to go in terms of changing their ideas about women.
If my parents would have supported me, I would have not lost my identity and gone through so much pain. I would have had my son with me. They chose to let me live in hell and suffer each day because they fulfilled their end of the bargain and married me off to an educated man. To this day, my parents have not called me one time. I still wait for the day they decide to check up on me.
My son was four when he saw everything I endured. My husband left and took my son with him. The only time I saw my son again came about when he asked me not to file a complaint against his father. He feared being made fun of at school if my ex-husband went to jail.
Today, at 18 years old, my son wants nothing to do with me. I tried contacting him through friends and social media. I garner no response. It hurts me deeply, but knowing he is happy eases my pain a little.
Despite not having my family, I do have many people who love and support me. I finally started accepting myself and making decisions for my happiness. I no longer allow any negativity in my life. Recently, I started traveling and helping people around the world. I focus on my work so I can pay my mortgage and live my life to the fullest.
After so long, I finally feel like I have found myself again. I love celebrating my life now and I make sure not to take anything for granted. In some odd way, I feel grateful that my parents abandoned me. Without it, I would not have become the strong person I am today. As a daughter, I may begin to forgive them someday, but as a mother, I never will.
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