Jennifer Lee O'Brien
We heard that Ria Sharma, the founder of the organisation Make Love Not Scars, was going to be in England for five days to meet with officials and the press to talk about her work with acid attack survivors in India.
We knew someone who knew Ria, and she agreed to talk to us in Leeds on the fourth day of her trip. It was on a Thursday, at 6pm, and the sun was lazy and bright. She arrived to our office on The Calls on a train from York with the breezy, decided energy of a talk show host stepping off a plane in New York.
“I’m just here for the night,” she says, her phone in one hand, carry-on in the other. “I’m literally in the UK for just five days. It’s all worked out perfectly.”
Five days isn’t very long, we say redundantly.
“I know,” she says. “It’s disgustingly short.”
During the five days that Ria was in England she spoke to dozens of people about Make Love Not Scars; she helped run a workshop in Woodhouse, where she talked to elderly Indian women in Leeds about her life as a modern woman in India; she initiated plans for international projects between local communities in England and the survivors she works with in India. She tried to film everything with a small, hand-held camera she’d been given for a documentary about her work.
She asks if we’ll film parts of her interview.
“I’ve dropped this thing, like, a billion times,” she laughs, handing the camera to us. “We get people to film stuff for us for the organisation. I never trust myself with the camera. I’m surprised it still works.”
Ria’s organisation has used cameras to document the lives of survivors of acid attacks in India, and campaign for laws that would help to reduce, if not ultimately eliminate, gender-based violence in the country. Some of the survivors Ria works with have, like Reshma Qureshi, used cameras to make video blogs that challenge perceptions of beauty and spread awareness. When Reshma walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, for Indian designer Archana Kochhar, cameras were there too.
“When I went back to India and started working with acid attack survivors my parents didn’t take me seriously; they thought I was crazy,” says Ria. “Whenever I’m in the news or something my friends laugh and pull up old pictures of me at uni and school doing funky stuff, and they’re like, ‘Is this you Ria? Should we leak this image to the press?’ I think they want to ruin me.”
She laughs. “No, I’m kidding. They’re supportive but they’re astonished as well. And I feel like that. For them to be this supportive about dreams I didn’t even know I had is really nice.”
When Ria moved from New Delhi to Leeds in 2011, to study fashion at Leeds College of Art, she had no idea that one day she’d be flying back to England to accept awards and speak to government officials and the press. Ria had no idea that one day she would be fundraising for an international NGO and helping rehabilitate survivors — women who have now become her friends.
“I genuinely thought, I’m going to go abroad and get a degree, and go back to India and get a mundane job,” she says. “I had no ambition. I didn’t care.
“At one point I thought I wanted to be a fashion buyer. I don’t even know what a fashion buyer is. It’s a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my life and it never materialised. Thank God for that.”
During the hour that Ria is in our office she tells us about being homesick when she first came to the UK, and her apathy towards university work. She tells us about calling Sheila, an acid attack survivor, from her bedroom in Leeds. She tells us about the horrors of a burn ward in a local hospital, and about giving her first TED talk, and about the strength she sees in survivors.
“Every survivor is entitled to a certain amount of compensation from the government, but they never see the money that could help them because this system is so agonisingly slow,” says Ria. “I want there to come a day when girls can get what’s rightfully theirs without banging on a billion doors and demeaning themselves.
“I hate the thought of there being a need for such an organisation. Obviously my end goal for Make Love Not Scars is that we don’t have to exist at all.”
When Ria leaves, the sun is still lazy and bright. With her phone in one hand and her carry-on in the other, she’s ready for all the meetings and speeches and flights it will take to ensure that the organisation, that she’s worked so hard to build, won’t need to exist at all. ••