Beauty pageants are often deemed anti-feminist – for years, many have argued that the process is exploitative and regressive, serving to judge and rate women according to the male gaze; yet they can also be seen as empowering, as women are able to walk down a catwalk celebrating their appearance and sexuality with confidence, epitomising the fierce spirit of the independent and liberated modern woman. However, one pageant I attended can only be described as awe-inspiring – an event which celebrated the survival instinct, courage and strength of beautiful women, who refused to let their identities be stifled by patriarchal forces.

The credit for this life changing experience goes to Action Aid – the charity who organised a fashion show with a difference. Rather than displaying traditional ideals of beauty, on Tuesday 10th October, Survivors’ Runway celebrated the inner beauty and resilience of eight acid attack survivors, who travelled over from Bangladesh to speak out about violence against women and girls.

As each model walked down the aisle, her face told her story:

NurunNahar – the girl who had acid thrown on her by her ex-husband. He had married again and NurunNahar refused to meet his new wife, so he attacked her at night while she was walking to her village toilet. His parting words to her were: “Your father will never get you married again.” In the midst of darkness, she then had to walk one kilometre to get to a doctor for treatment.

Jasmen – the sixteen year old girl who was attacked by her uncle, who – unbeknownst to her – intended to marry her. He believed if she suffered an acid attack, this would make her vulnerable  and unable to marry anyone else. He approached her window as she was studying for her exams and threw acid in her face.

Sonali – the girl who at just 17 days old had acid thrown all over her, as she was sleeping between her parents. The reason for the attack? A land dispute. Sonali’s skull was completely deformed as a result of the attack.

These girls were burned, disfigured and blinded at the hands of relatives and strangers – and while their lives changed forever due to no fault of their own, the perpetrators were never brought to justice. Instead, the girls were silenced. People insulted them. The community said they must have been “bad girls” or were “the wrong type of girls” to have been the target of the attack. In fact, the culture of silence is why these kinds of attacks are so prevalent in many parts of the world; women and girls feel discouraged from speaking out against their attackers and seeking justice, often for fear of worse consequences.

But the women I saw were not victims. They had united to ensure that that they stood up for other women who may be facing similar pressures. They knew that if they were going to achieve anything positive from this tragedy, it would be to use their experience to raise awareness and endorse change. There was no element of self pity. The show was a tribute to the inner beauty which can only prevail in a strong woman.

So what can one hope to learn from their stories? These tragedies are not necessarily far from home. Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread human rights abuses affecting around one in three women worldwide. It happens everywhere and takes many forms: domestic abuse, sexual harassment, rape as a weapon of war, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and acid attacks. Violence that targets women and girls is rooted in deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, restricting women’s control over their bodies and lives.

Seeing the scars of these models was a primitive reminder of the sheer brutality that millions of girls experience on a daily basis. In a society where women are valued for their physical beauty, acid attacks have very clear intentions, and there is no option of safety – 80% of the attacks occur in the victim’s own home. 250 million women alive today were pulled out of school and forced to marry an older man before they turned fifteen – many of these “marriages” began with abduction.  We will never be able to truly comprehend what it’s like not being able to go to school during rainy season because there are men lying in the grass, ready to attack you.

Living in the western world, we cannot fathom the challenges that women around the world are facing; they are being denied basic human rights to water, food, shelter and education. They are being denied the right to choose their own destiny.

Acid attacks in Bangladesh have now dramatically declined. But as Girish Menon, ActionAid UK CEO, reminded us in his closing speech: “Even one attack is one too many.”

This isn’t about honour killing or revenge or punishment. These words inadvertently offer justifications for an action which is barbaric, savage and inhumane. This is about men realising that they are losing control over women, who are recognising across the world that they are more than reproductive machines or possessions, and the men are scared. Very scared. They haven’t ever seen life from another perspective. They haven’t learnt to consider women as a fellow human being, forget equal. So they are resorting to drastic means to regain the power in this gender battle. The motive is control.

But the women are rising – with dignity, power and a spirit which is undefeatable. Their colourful costumes, exuberant dancing and empowered performance were a proud defiance of the shame, isolation and silencing their attackers intended for them. They showed that they are not victims. They are survivors.

And they are brushing the acid off and continuing to walk towards gender equality and justice.

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