An open letter about beauty and ugliness

Dheera Sujan – WNN Opinion

Before and after images of Shirin Juwaley who is a acid attack survivor
Shirin Juwaley before and after a acid attack that disfigured her face. Image: South Asia Wire

(WNN) INDIA: Shirin Juwaley is an acid attack survivor who founded the NGO Palash to help burn and acid survivors.  She speaks to young people about her experience.  She was recently denied entry to a Mumbai college by a principal who didn’t want her students to get scared by Shirin’s experience.

I have written an open letter to the college principal who remains anonymous because Shirin didn’t want to name and shame any individual; rather, she feels it’s a general view of society that needs addressing.

Dear Madam Principal,

It has come to my notice that you have refused permission for Shirin Juwaley to visit your college on the grounds that her appearance may have a negative impact on the students, and that you didn’t want your girls to “become scared of marriage.”

I believe that you know of Shirin’s story:  how 13 years ago, she was drastically disfigured after her ex husband threw acid on her face.  I wonder if you have thought about the kind of details behind that simple statement; the years of physical agony a young woman was forced to endure, the anguish of her mother and those close to her, the mental distress that would have overwhelmed a lesser person.

Have you pictured her as a young woman?  I have a “before and after” picture for you to help with that.

Look at the “before” picture – is she not indistinguishable from the young women in your care?  Does this picture not reflect the smart and bubbly personality of some of your most popular students?  When this picture was taken, she, like every 20- something, middle class Indian girl had romantic dreams of marriage and kids.  Look at the picture again.  She could be one of your students, or  your daughter – maybe even your younger self.

You refused to let Shirin come and talk to your girls and I wonder if you made your decision after seeing the “after” photo of her.  No doubt you thought you were protecting your charges, but I’m wondering what you thought you were protecting them from.  Ugliness?

If so, I ask you to define ugliness.  Is a warped and discoloured skin ugly?  Would you rate skin-deep beauty higher than a strong and courageous heart?  Would you claim that a lovely face and figure is enough to overlook soul embittered, ignorant or hateful?

You asked: “ What has she done in her life that she can come and talk about? She only got burnt, and she wanted to survive, everyone survives, [there’s] nothing special about her”.
I’m not sure if you made that statement after hearing Shirin’s story but in any case, she recently told it to me and I would like to retell it here in brief.

Portrait of Shirin after the acid attack
Shirin Juwaley is an acid attack survivor who founded the NGO Palash to help burn and acid survivors. Image: South Asia Wired

Shirin was 24 years old when she was attacked just outside her home by her husband, who was enraged that after only two months of marriage, she had asked for a divorce.  He splashed a bottle of acid on her face, but it also trickled on to her arms, neck and hands.

Howling with pain, terrified that she would be blind, she got herself into her house and, to the accompaniment of her mother’s hysterical screams, under the bathroom tap; “the whole room” – she adds in a chilling detail, “was filled with smoke.” In the several months she spent in the hospital, she forbade herself to cry, fearing the tears would damage her threatened eyes.

Perhaps you  Madam Principal, like most of us, have seen these movies where a heroine who is burnt in one scene, wakes up in the next with a face wrapped in a mummy-like bandage.  When the hero doctor unravels the bandage, you see the girl has been transformed – she has a different face, but it’s perfect.

Shirin had certainly seen these movies but she was to find out that they had no bearing on reality.  She was to learn first hand that what really happens after burns is that the scar tissue starts growing uncontrollably.

In her case it blurred her features until her face no longer looked like a human face.  For two years, Shirin hid at home, afraid of the stares and the pointing and the insensitive questions.

16 painful, protracted and expensive surgeries later, Shirin now has a nose, lips, and her wonderful smile back.  But more importantly, she has reclaimed her life and her sense of self.  She now looks in the mirror and sees “a gorgeous woman”.

And you know what Madam Principal?  So do I.

Shirin could have chosen to hide for the rest of her life.  She could have chosen to let hatred eat away at everything the acid hadn’t reached.  She could have chosen to let any number of things dominate her life: revenge, self pity, victim hood.

But she didn’t.

She chose to take herself out in the world, to live by example, to face every stare and question with dignity, to use her story to teach others about, yes, the ugliness and unpleasant realities of a bad marriage.  But the chief lesson to be learned by anyone who hears Shirin’s story is what every world religion strives to teach – life’s grace that comes with acceptance and forgiveness.

When I heard that a college Principal had denied Shirin the right to speak to students, I asked myself what kind of an educator would make such a decision.  I started wondering at the purpose of education.

Is it just about getting students to cram for exams to get good jobs later on, or is education a preparation for life?  For teaching young people right from wrong, helping them to become good people and clear thinking members of a just society?

Shirin Juwaley is a walking example of what a just society is composed of: individuals who emerge from the worst that life can throw at them as better human beings than they were before.

Shirin’s story is a real and rare illustration of the all too often hollow words: Shining India.  And as such she should not just be allowed into the nation’s places of learning but be welcomed, cajoled and begged to visit.


Dheera Sujan has been a leading editor with Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) since 1989 and she’s worked on a host of programmes, collecting an armful of international prizes along the way. Dheera is also now the top editor for RNW South Asia Wired. A Sindhi, born in India, she was educated in Australia and is quite comfortable being a walking cultural salad. Which is just as well, because her Chinese and Indian daughters are fluent in Dutch, can sing in Hindi and speak English with an unmistakeably foreign accent.


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