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An open letter about beauty and ugliness

Shirin JuwaleyShirin 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. You can read Shirin’s blog about this incident here:
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.

Shirin before and after the attack

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 overlooka 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.

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 accompaniement 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, victimhood.  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 learnt 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.

29 Comments on “An open letter about beauty and ugliness”

  1. #1 David Berridge
    on Aug 30th, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    It is a courageous stand by Shirwin Juwaley not to name the school principal in question as well as the college. The main thing here is to illustrate the failings of national culture to highlight personal courage and faith of the lady to overcome personal adversity and then help others overcome it themselves. To hide the crime by hiding the victim is to compound it many times over. Your open letter, Dheera, has helped to reverse this situation, and may it find the open heart of another school principal who will gladly invite Shirwin to speak to students as an example of helping others through what they have endured themselves. And, as an added example, it would also be befitting to invite Shirwin to a boys’ school to show them the lack of manhood that this crime brings, and that the human spirit can triumph over this trajedy.

  2. #2 Dr John Morrison, Chair, Acid Survivors Trust international
    on Aug 30th, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Thank you Dheera for your tremendous letter. You encapsulate my own thoughts exactly. On behalf of acid survivors around the world I would like to thank you for your response.

    The suggestion by David Berridge about Shirin going to a boys school is excellent. Until men and boys get angry and work to stop acid violence it will continue. This happened in Bangladesh. Men joined the campaign against acid violence and helped to bring the number of attacks down from 500 in 2002 to around 100 today.

  3. #3 parinaz mubaraki
    on Aug 30th, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    “Beauty comes from within” is what shirin proves, on the other hand “beauty is only skin deep” is what the principal proves. knowing all the amazing work that shirin is doing for women in society will put to shame all those so called beauty queens who claim they will do this and do that but never actually do anything. shirin may look different but she is using that to make a difference.

  4. #4 Natasha
    on Aug 31st, 2011 at 4:57 am

    Shirin, as someone who has worked with you, and known you, it would be easy for me to say that after one gets to know you, one doesn’t see your face, one only sees the gorgeous person that you are. But you know, and I know that it is not true. We do continue to see your face even after we get to know you well- we may not react to it, but we still notice it. And because we notice it, somewhere at the back of the mind the mind is processing the thought, ‘what kind of creature does this to a human being?”
    Shirin, it would be so easy for you to hide behind a burqua or something. Yet, you bravely show your face, and almost demand the stares that you get. Because you want to make people aware of a crime almost worse that murder that is still going unpunished in our society. If that is not supreme bravery, what is?
    And I agree with David- not just the girls’ schools- it should be the boys’ schools that need to meet you too.

  5. #5 sarla suajn
    on Aug 31st, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Any one who can bring herself/himself to refuse admission to Shirin in a school on the basis of her scarred appearance doesnt look behind the appearance. Shirin deserves normal, if not extra compassionate, appraoch to being admitted to the school. How I wish I could personally go to this principal and see what was she “considering”, whose sensitivities was she protecting in denying this most deserving person an admission to the school.
    Dheera,I will be waiting to see what this principal has to say to this thoughtful open letter .

  6. #6 AJ
    on Aug 31st, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Shirin our society is shallow as far as understanding is concerned. I’m so happy that you had the courage to take a positive initiative without hatred and anger in your heart…! God Bless!

  7. #7 India: Reaction To The Kashmir Mass Graves | Social Entrepreneur Guide
    on Aug 31st, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    [...] survivor, writes in her blog that she was recently denied entry to a Mumbai college. Dheera Sujan writes an open letter to the principal who didn’t want her students to see Shirin’s face and get scared of [...]

  8. #8 gurpreet sidhu
    on Sep 1st, 2011 at 10:53 am

    while i see the impact shirin might have in a boy’s school,she needs to get on with her life.after all shirin,the person, is more than a symbol of violence.
    i do hope the principal sees beyond her unthinking and insensitive refusal and gives shirin a chance to study at the college.
    and i wish shirin a happy and fulfilling life.

  9. #9 gurpreet sidhu
    on Sep 1st, 2011 at 10:57 am

    and shirin sweetheart,open your hair again.looks free and lovely.

  10. #10 jasmin
    on Sep 1st, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Very courageous of Shirin to accept her condition and face the world bravely. And very good of Dheera to address this issue openly. However, Dheera, this is how the women are made to feel by the society and by the media: to look fair and lovely-at any cost, at any age. That is why we have this cosmetic industry thriving like anything. No woman wants to look aged or disagreeble to others, because you are as good as your looks. Very few people believe in the beauty of the heart and spirit. The principal should have grabbed this opportunity to dispel the myth of beauty, it shows her shallow mind. Though, I would agree that anti-bride events do have an impact on the tender mind of the girls. Bride burning in Punjab was very common when I was young. The print media and films dwelled on the issue constantly that it scared us.

  11. #11 Ram
    on Sep 1st, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I’m very much sorry to hear the story and feel guilty that I also have been behaving weird to such people. I’m extremely sorry Shirin.

  12. #12 Dave Brown
    on Sep 1st, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I totally agree, she’ll impart some real education to the kids.

  13. #13 Aparna
    on Sep 2nd, 2011 at 10:18 am

    I love u Shireen, for the person u are , for the courage u have shown and most importantly to let the world know that these things do happen to women though they may not be responsible for it … in 90% cases people think that women are at fault esp in our society.

    A toast to Dheera .. thank u for taking up this issue… and being so campassionate

  14. #14 prashant
    on Sep 2nd, 2011 at 11:59 am

    I agree with Dr John Morrison that Shirwin should visit a boy’s college / school or a co-ed institution and give a talk.

  15. #15 corinne
    on Sep 3rd, 2011 at 5:17 am

    The Principal really did miss a wonderful opportunity for her students to be inspired by Shirin. She has let her students down.

  16. #16 Jasmine Jose
    on Sep 3rd, 2011 at 6:17 am

    First of all, i would like to applaud Shirin for her courage and will power. In the Indian society, its very rare that women who have scars or any other abnormalities are accepted. The age old culture where a perfect woman is protruded as being air n widot blemishes refuses to go even today when we as a country are competing with other countries to be super powers. Though there has been a change up to certain level, still today many women face discrimination/ harassment in some form or the other. Its all the more shameful that such incidences occur despite the fact that we are a land where we worship goddesses and have many women standing high in the political scenario. Even with all this I am still optimistic that things will change and the only thing required for it is a little courage and the will power to stand up against all odds.

  17. #17 Deepti Sahoo
    on Sep 3rd, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Thanks a lot (…) writer. This is really a shameful thing done by the principal. I have one question to the principal that “what she would have done if this sort of terrible things happen to her own daughter?” Does she told her to close herself in a room and to wait when she will die, or she will suggest her to commit suicide as because she lost her outer beauty?outer beauty is something like mirage. That will go automatically as you grow up. Just remember that if you are beautiful by heart that will stay for ever. Shirin you are saved because you are lucky and there must be some hidden hint from god try to explore and remember life is beautiful it may have ups and downs but you will find charm in each step. Just ignore that lady without heart and move forward. Best of Luck.We are with you always…

  18. #18 jyoti
    on Sep 4th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Dear Shirin,
    I bow my head to you with all humility. Your lack of bitterness and anger shows me how much you have suffered. Only a person who has crossed the threshold of absolute suffering can be generous as you. My dear you have conquered fear. Unfortunately 95% of the world population is steeped in fear. You are pure gold because you have come out of the fire and survived.
    I remember reading that you regret not having children. Maybe destiny wants you to adopt the whole world as your child. You are meant for great things. Not everybody can go through what you have and emerge stronger and wiser. There are many who are undergoing unspeakable torture and suffering. They will welcome you. Go to them. Your message will be helpful. Your suffering and experience unnerves many and they prefer to be in denial. But for many your experience is a story of strength which they are desperately seeking. Find them. Heal those who have been burnt not those who might be burned. Help those who need your help today not those who might need your advise tomorrow. We live in a world where reality is frightening. You symbolize raw truth. May the universe shower you with guidance and faith.

  19. #19 SB
    on Sep 4th, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Shirin. Thy name is courage!

  20. #20 Prachi
    on Sep 5th, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Just because of the Principal, her students missed a great chance to meet a wonderful brave woman who could have only inspired her students to be what they are and face the world. Shirin is the perfect example of “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’…

    I would strongly agree when the author says ” She could be one of your students, or your daughter – maybe even your younger self.”

    Hats off to Shirin. :-)

  21. #21 Sumita
    on Sep 5th, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Dear Shirin, your courage gives women in general, the strength to face all adversities of life. Bow my head in respect!

  22. #22 Neeti
    on Sep 5th, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Dear Shirin,

    I bow my head in respect.. you have insipred so many of us to face all the adversities in life.I personally have gone through a very bad phase in my life so can understand what it takes to come out , and face the world in such male dominated Indian society.

    All the very Best in life .. and keep similing.. :)

  23. #23 Vinayy
    on Sep 5th, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    People who scorn and scoff at others with such (or any other) shortcomings should infact be thankful to whoever they believe in (e.g.: God) that they have been spared by misadventures of life.

  24. #24 DB
    on Sep 6th, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Hats off to you Shirin for the courage in you. It is a missed opportunity for the Principal and her students. I agree with the writer that “education is 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.”

  25. #25 Frank Hinton
    on Sep 7th, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Websites worth visiting…

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  26. #26 shobhana
    on Sep 8th, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Its people like this principal who make monsters of young men like Shirin’s husband I think.Making them grow up to snobs and hypocrites not understanding the values of life.Hope Shirin’s life becomes a lesson to the Principal and all people like her.

  27. #27 d.d.
    on Sep 20th, 2011 at 8:04 am

    shirin,,
    This bravery will not go unnoticed..it takes a lot to stand in the midst of such crowd and to act normal when people around donot act the same..love ur courage..keep up ur spirits..the college that refused you is not worth you..the best door will be opened..Always remeber GOD loves you the way you are..For he led you into this test because he was sure you will pass with flying colours..He probably loves you more now than any one else.god bless you dear sister..you would always be in our prayers. Jesus cares.

  28. #28 Carolyn Boesveld
    on Sep 26th, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Dear Shirin: I listened to your lovely, soft voice this evening with tears in my eyes. These were at first tears for your pain, but turned to tears of admiration for your beautiful, courageous self. You turned your suffering into an organization which helps others dealing with this awful issue.

    Your ‘before’ picture shows a pretty young woman who looks forward to her future with excitement in her eyes. The ‘after’ picture shows a beautiful woman with both humour and love in her eyes. I will always remember you, dear Shirin. Thank you, thank you for allowing me a glimpse into your life.

  29. #29 Pelham
    on Sep 27th, 2011 at 4:17 am

    Driving down the highway in South Florida, listening to the composure and sense of calm in your voice, the humility and beauty of your words and sentiments, your hopes and yearnings. These were so powerful that they made me search for this item. I think to meet you would be an inspiration and for an educator to introduce you to young people an obligation, to help to make this world a better place. I can not invite you to Florida because i am leaving the USA soon but perhaps i may seek to invite you to speak at a college where I will be working near Mumbai. I will make a note to search for you in 2012! Good luck!

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