A group of acid attack survivors have sent the world a powerful message about redefining beauty by starring in a catwalk show like no other.
The models were flown over from Bangladesh for ActionAid’s first ever UK Survivor’s Runway at the Truman Brewery on Tuesday 10 October.
Dressed in beautiful designs created by former international model and UN Ambassador Bibi Russell, the survivors walked the runway to a striking compilation of world music.
“I want to set an example of moving forward with good thinking and ask others to recognise – not feel sorry for - what we are doing and stand in solidarity of it,” said one of the models, Nurun Nahar, whose husband threw acid on her after she refused to visit his new wife.
She had to spend two months in hospital and faced alienation from her community as a result of her attack.
Girish Menon, ActionAid’s CEO, told HuffPost UK his decision to bring Survivor’s Runway to London was impacted by the fact that acid attacks are becoming increasingly common in the UK.
“It convinced us even more that now was the time to be doing an event like this – providing survivors with a platform that could inspire others,” he said.
Menon pointed out that UK headlines often focus on how these attacks relate to gang violence. However ActionAid is particularly “keen to tell the other side of the story, which shows how acid attacks destroys the lives of women, with many cases going unreported due to fears of revenge.”
Thanks to work done by Bibi Russell, (who put on a similar event in Dhaka in March 2017) fashion has become a force for raising awareness about acid attacks.
Farah Kabir, country director for ActionAid Bangladesh explained why:
“Fashion can be used to challenge conventional standards of beauty and help us show the beauty, courage and dignity of these women and girls,” she said.
“Life does not come to an end because of this attack - that is our message for other acid attack survivors. You don’t need to become invisible.
“When we first did the show in March we called it Beauty Redefined and we have already come a long way but more needs to be done.”
This sentiment rang true throughout the show, as the survivors were adorned with garlands and cloaked in fabrics that boasted the richness of their heritage.
The audience looked on in awe as some of the survivors danced serenely across the length of the runway, as montages recapping the events that had unfolded in their lives played on scenes behind them - bringing tears to smiling eyes.
Despite the gravity of the night, the show’s finale involved a mass boogie as the survivors invited audience members to celebrate with them.
The sight of people from varying backgrounds and nationalities dancing together summed up the evening - and it’s endeavour - beautifully.
Among supporters were well-known stars of British television and film.
Hugh Dennis, Holiday Grainger and Jodie Whittaker were completely immersed in the experience: clapping along to the beat of the music and finally joining the survivors and ActionAid team on the dance-floor.
At the show’s start, Kabir gave a moving speech about the importance of inner beauty and positivity.
“We’re here to celebrate the inner beauty and strength of acid survivors,” she said.
“I’m here, not to make you feel sorry, but to show you the amazing courage of these survivors. That’s why this is a fashion show with a difference. Its about redefining beauty.”
Menon stressed the significance of the universality of violence against women.
“Globally it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are most affected and it is just one of many forms of violence they face daily – it is important people are aware of this,” he said.
According to WHO, the reality is that roughly one in three (35%) women worldwide experience some form of physical, sexual partner and non-partner violence in their lifetime.
Model Nahar spoke of what she hopes this event will achieve:
“I hope it will work so that we can stop this practice of throwing acid on women.
“We want to see all survivors with jobs in the future, earning money for themselves.
“We also want to make sure that survivors get proper justice. I hope the survivors can move easily through Bangladesh and that society will accept them as normal people – not just acid victims. I also want to see survivors in government positions; I want to see them in Parliament. That is my dream.”
There is also a strong correlation between women’s right to the independence they deserve.
Safura Khatun, another survivor who walked the runway, agrees that with the right support rather than social isolation, acid attack victims can play a crucial role in changing society for the better.
“We can do a lot,” said Safura. “We just need the right support and encouragement. I come from a poor background in a remote village where you wouldn’t even see a plane. Now I’ve flown this far, it is amazing.”
She is grateful to ActionAid for giving her the opportunity to take part in the show and share her message with a global audience.
“It used to be difficult for us to go anywhere,” continued Khatan, “but now we can show the world what we can achieve with the right care. If needed, I will go anywhere [to spread this message].”
At the close of the event, Menon gave an emotional speech about the journey (literally and emotional) they’d all been on to get to this point.
He stated that the event was a “true celebration of the spirit of resistance and the spirit of change.”
Nahar has got to know many acid attack survivors through her work for ActionAid and she had an important message to share with them.
“I could see that they felt so hopeless and that they had no confidence,” Nahar said.
“So I tried to explain to them about how I had changed my life and to show them that if they can change their thinking then they can also change their life.
“I hope that one day they can have even more success than me and be something even bigger and shine even brighter.
“If I can change my life, then anyone can. You know I was living in the village before the accident and now I am working for ActionAid.”
At the event, Nahar joked: “Everybody calls us ActionAid girls and they know not to mess with us.”