For the first time in my life I found myself sitting in the audience of a gorgeous fashion show in the heart of London. Beautiful chandeliers above my head, immaculately dressed guests on either side of me, photographers huddled at the end of the catwalk and a FROW (i.e. ‘front row’ for the less fashion savvy ones amongst us) full of esteemed guests and well known faces. It was definitely as glamorous as I had always imagined it would be, I thought as I waited for the show to begin. But there was something so unique about the show that it left me questioning my perceptions of ‘beauty’ and even ‘gender rights’ by the end of the evening.
Sonal Sachdev Patel CEO of GSMP took to the stage and told the powerful story of not one but two incredible women, one a young British teenager who had been attacked by an estranged boyfriend and another an Indian young woman who also was the victim of an attack by a man whose advances she rebuked. Adele, and Laxmi -thousands of miles apart, with seemingly nothing in common – both had one horrific detail in common – they both were survivors of acid attacks. Sonal went on to share some horribly depressing statistics with us, that 54% of men and women feel that it is acceptable for a man to hit his wife in some circumstances, (insert one more stat please I know there were more). And they were horribly depressing. But like Sonal said perhaps the real issue lies in not just knowing the statistics but also knowing what we as individuals and a collective can do to help. Looking around the crowd she said – maybe you are a politician and you can effect policy – or maybe you are a student who can raise awareness on social media, and the one that resonated most with me was the call out to parents, its up to us to teach our children about gender equality and respect.
Sonal introduced Laxmi, who I had seen speak in TV interviews several times but was not prepared for how impressive, spontaneous and courageous she would actually be in real life. Petite, with the kind of shiny glossy hair you see in an advert for expensive shampoos, there she stood before me adjusting the mic down to her level. And of course there was the face. Disfigured and destroyed by the acid that three men poured on her face after she refused to marry one of them when she was just 15 years old, there was no escaping the lasting scars this one act had had on Laxmi’s face. But when Laxmi started speaking I forgot the scars, I forgot the marks on her arms, all I saw was this amazing woman, with a sense of humour, who joked about her English, who with a smile said – don’t make women feel like all they are is a pretty face, because they are so much more than that, and ironically following this logic the more we do that the more we will see a drop in acid attacks which seemingly are motivated by men (women too in some cases) trying to rob a woman of her of what they see as her one an only asset – her beautiful face. Women are more than that. I didn’t feel pity for Laxmi, I felt humbled by her resilience and selfless dedication to use her horrific experience to help the rest of us.
I sat there contemplating Laxmi’s words about inner and outer beauty as the fashion show began, watching the beautiful models glide down the ramp in exquisite creations by designer Raishma Islam who also collaborated with Inkquisitive Illustrations for bespoke sarees, only to see Laxmi and Adele come out from behind the screen and walk down the ramp holding placards saying #giveagirlafuture. I was captivated not by their scars, but by the look of determination in their eyes, the serious smiles on her faces, the smiles that said – ‘ You can’t take away my dignity’ and ‘I’m here to change your perceptions about beauty’. And they did.
I am immensely grateful to Laxmi, Adele, and GMSP, and the British Asian Trust for making me question my assumptions about beauty, and what it means to be a woman, and a mother of a daughter. My lasting memory of the night is Laxmi’s smile as she lifted her up her 17-month-old baby on stage at the end of her speech and said ‘This is my daughter.’ What an incredible role model she will be.