The city of the Taj Mahal has found within herself another symbol of eternal love, but it is not a gigantic stone mausoleum built by lovers long dead and buried. Instead this edifice of love is a tiny café decorated with colourful graffiti and cheerful pictures right opposite Mumtaz Mahal’s final resting place. It symbolises love – perhaps not the romantic kind – but something just as important; a love for life, a love for humanity.
Café Sheroes’ Hangout is an initiative started by the Stop Acid Attacks (SAA) Campaign and the Chhanv Foundation which works to rehabilitate survivors of acid attacks and spread awareness about such atrocities against women throughout the society, which often looks down upon such individuals or views them with pity. It was opened in Agra with an initial capital of ₹3 lakhs raised through crowd-funding.
The café is run almost entirely by five acid attack survivors namely; Ritu, Geeta, Rupa, Neetu and Dolly. These five women share in common terrifyingly dark pasts filled with pain and violence, but more importantly, the courage to live on and pursue their dreams despite all odds.
Neetu was blinded by her father as a child, for her mother’s failure to give birth to a son, while her younger sister died in the same attack. Dolly, in a tale oft-repeated, was attacked and permanently disfigured by a man she had refused to marry.
But despite the horrific ordeals they have all undergone, these women are now ready to face life and the world once more. The walls of the café are decorated with pictures of acid-attack survivors, who also form the entirety of the staff; waiting tables, preparing delicious meals, chatting with customers and managing accounts. Unlike before, when they were forced to cover their faces and live in the shadows, they now display their scars with pride, as the battle-scars of a warrior. In a tongue-in-cheek satire of some of the society’s more ridiculous attitudes towards women, on a pin up board in a corner of the café are displayed a number of items which society often blames for atrocities against women, such as chowmein, mobile phones and make-up.
The café also has a reading room full of books on women’s empowerment, most of which were donated by customers and supporters. Furthermore, it boasts of a boutique displaying handicrafts and designer clothes designed and made by the ‘Sheroes’ themselves, which serves as an extra source of income for them. Rupa, who wanted to be a fashion designer before the attack put her life on hold, can now follow her dream through the efforts of the SAA activists.
The café functions on a pay-as-you-like basis with no fixed costs for the delicacies they serve. Many of the customers are tourists who are both sympathetic to the cause and generous. All the income generated is used for the betterment of the victims and the café functions as a non-profit organization, that aims mainly to spread awareness and provide an honourable and dignified living for the women society had shunned. The café also has a radio hub, enabling the Sheroes’ to fulfil their dreams of becoming RJs and performers. Beauty does not define character, and there is no place one can understand this truth better than at Sheroes’ Hangout. The name of the establishment is a play on the word ‘heroes’, a tribute to the survivors who run and maintain it on a day-to-day basis.
Alok Dixit, the head of the SAA campaign, has said that plans for more such cafés in cities like Delhi, Indore and Ludhiana are in the pipeline, which would help provide work and rehabilitation for at least five acid attack survivors from the city and surrounding areas.
So the next time you visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, don’t forget to pay a visit to this exceptional little café with its exceptional young ‘Sheroes’!