I’m the one with the wrinkles

Mingling with Stars

As I told you last week, on Tuesday I went to the ActionAid fashion show, ‘Beauty Redefined’. It was held in The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, so getting there was quite an adventure (that place is in desperate need of some signage).

We arrived for a drinks reception. The venue was an old warehouse, so not glamorous, but there was a general air of excitement (in spite of the pigeons flying between the beams above our heads). Perhaps everyone was just happy that they had finally made it to the right place. Or perhaps it was the number of photographers and cameramen who were recording the event for the national press (it was covered by BBC News – did you see it?). Or perhaps it was the presence of several famous people.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at recognising famous people. I don’t watch much telly and I don’t read magazines. So although I could guess, by the high heels and sparkly dresses and amount of media attention, who was famous, I had no idea who they actually were. I took a few photos, so you might recognise people (though the only person who I did recognise was Hugh Dennis, and he was never near enough for a photograph). Someone told me the new Dr Who actor was there, so I went to ask if I could have her photo. She was a bit perturbed that I didn’t actually know who she was, but was incredibly gracious and friendly, and I took a selfie. Nice lady, should you ever meet her.

When later, I looked at the selfie, I was surprised by how many wrinkles I have. I never see them normally, when I look in the mirror, I sort of see the face I’m expecting to see, which I guess is an echo of the young me. But I’m not young, I’m 52, and I have lived a lot and laughed a lot, and my face has wrinkles. It is not a model’s face, it has not been airbrushed, but it’s mine. The wrinkles don’t matter. This is relevant when you consider that every model in the fashion show was the victim of an acid attack. They would probably have loved to have a few wrinkles on their faces, a few less scars.

 Then we went in to watch the fashion show. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a fashion show, as there were very few changes of outfits, and because they were traditional Bangladeshi dress, they all looked much the same to me anyhow. But, all the models, due to the acid thrown at them, had scarred faces; the flesh burnt off by cruel chemicals. Melted flesh is not pretty. Some models seem to have trouble seeing, some appeared nervous. This was not a celebration of beauty. Except, it was. The fashion show was to increase awareness of these horrible attacks, which are usually inflicted by men on women. The show was to help the models spread their message, that they are not ashamed of their disfigurements, they have done nothing wrong, their beauty is internal, only the wrapper has been spoiled.

ActionAid are working with victims of acid attacks, giving them confidence to continue with their lives rather than hiding inside. They are lobbying for restrictions in the sale of acids, they are telling people that this is not okay. They are empowering women (in a country where women have very few rights). The show was to celebrate the success already achieved in Bangladesh: that acid attack victims are being supported and given confidence; and due to restrictions in the sale of acids, attacks are decreasing.

  I personally, found the evening difficult. The women we saw reminded me of the Bengali women I met in Delhi – the ones who showed me their homes, who held my hand so I didn’t fall into the open sewer, who sat and laughed with me, who hugged me when I left. Women who were the same as me, but with different lives. To see those poor faces, to know someone had deliberately hurt them, was horrible beyond words. There was an audio playing, telling of different types of abuse that women suffer: over land disputes, when resisting abduction, when a husband wants a new wife, when they don’t want to be married as a child. I couldn’t listen to it. I would have cried.

But as I watched those women, as they paraded, and danced, and smiled, I did admire them. We all have faces or bodies or brains that aren’t ‘perfect’. Things happen to us, sometimes horrible things. Those models were refusing to be defined by their appearance. Perhaps there is a lesson there for all of us. So whatever your wrinkles or scars or general imperfections, remember you are special.

But here’s the main point: Before I went to this event, I was concerned it would be patronising. It is too easy for benevolence to become an ego trip, a reminder of our power, our ‘superiority’. I didn’t want to see celebrities “being kind” to the “sweet little women with the scarred faces”. These women are strong, capable, intelligent people, living their lives in an incredibly tough place. Life would be brutal enough without a disfigurement that means they are treated as pariahs. They are refusing to be defeated, they are standing tall, forcing the world to accept that they matter. We should stand with them. Perhaps this event was enabling us to do that.

Have a good week,
Take care,
Anne x


 Anne E. Thompson is the author of several novels and one non-fiction book, How to Have a Brain Tumour. Her books are available from bookshops and Amazon. You can follow her blog at: anneethompson.com



Have you read JOANNA yet? Strong women in a gritty novel, seeing the world through the eyes of a psychopath. Available from bookshops and Amazon.


Who helps the poor in Delhi?


We visited the offices of Pardarshita. Pardarshita means ‘transparency’. They have partnered with Actionaid, and are striving for transparency within society. They want basic human rights for women and children in India. Although laws are in place to help people, in reality, many people are unable to claim their rights.

For food, poor people are given ration cards. In theory, there is a basic level of nutrition. However, the scheme is not adequately organised, so many people cannot access it. The same is true of pensions, education, health care. The main problem seems to be administration.

The charity runs workshops, informing women of their rights and helping them to access them. These include:
Enrolment in school for children.
Ration card.
‘Kerosine Free Delhi’ ( they can claim free LPG for cooking, if they have a ration card.)
Voter card (for elections.)
Birth Certificate.
Income certificate.

The people need to queue for many hours to obtain the above certificates, and they need the certificates to claim their rights. Or, some people pay for a counterfeit one (this apparently, is very common.)

The ration card is given to people ‘below the poverty line’. I think, whatever the country, this is always going to be a difficult one. Who are the ‘poor’ in England? They have far more than these people even dream of owning! Previously, in India, poverty was assessed by calorie intake. I think this seems an accurate guide (often, especially when people are subsistence farmers, the whole “less than a dollar a day” standard is meaningless, as they wouldn’t have anywhere to spend a dollar even if they had one. Money only works in Western countries as a guide to poverty, in my view.)

However, the last census in India took possessions into account. So, if a domestic worker had been given a television to watch, she was considered ‘not poor’. This allows the government to count fewer people as ‘poor’. Which means fewer people can claim their rights.

India has lots of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. If you are a Muslim and speak Bengali, people will assume you are an illegal immigrant, even if you’re not (in the slums, there were a lot of Bengali speaking Muslims.) They tend to have to bribe an official to be issued with an ID card. If you can prove you have lived in India for 10 years (so have documentation) you can then stay legally.

The rights of domestic workers is another issue. India is famous for cheap labour – everyone in the world wants to take advantage of this. Including Indians. So, most people, even ‘ordinary’ people have domestic staff. They are paid below the minimum wage (because no one checks) and are sometimes treated almost like slaves. No one really wants to change this, because no one wants to pay more for their own cleaner, child minder, cook…. The pay is about 2,000 rupees a month ($30) They are also very vulnerable to abuse. A rich person, with guards on his gate, sometimes feels he is above the law (remember, women have very few rights in India, and courts rarely rule in their favour.) There are some sad stories amongst the women in the slums.

All children have the right to free education in India. The quality of this education varies. We visited a school in a resettlement area. It was a bizarre experience.

We were shown into the headteacher’s office and given chairs to sit on. The chairs were dusty, and I felt I needed to keep moving my feet because as the headteacher (a sensible, intelligent, woman) spoke, mice scuttled about on the floor. Do mice run up trouser legs? I wasn’t sure, but didn’t feel especially relaxed.
The school had 2,000 pupils. There were 15 toilets (you can imagine what that means…) We were told the ratio of teacher to pupil was 1:70 (though actually, the classes we saw were much smaller than this.) The building is used three times during the day, two shifts in the morning and one in the afternoon (completely different head, staff and pupils attend each shift.) This makes for difficult administration when things like budgets are planned.

The women in the slums told us that by age 9, most children could only read very simple Hindi, so they questioned the point of them attending school. If children don’t attend school, they can help their parents, or care for younger siblings so their mother can work. The headteacher told us that teaching quality was variable, because many teachers were demotivated. Paid by the government, they put in the hours, but had no motivation to actually teach. They also are expected to do admin, such as ensure children have ID cards, which takes time, so teaching gets relegated. Another problem is that very few of the pupil’s parents could read or write, so there was no reinforcement at home. This is huge. In England, children take home a book every day, so they can practice at home. Without this, it is much harder for a child to learn to read, especially if their role models never read or write.

I found the school visit to be a rather depressing experience. The classes we glimpsed seemed completely unstimulating, even the rooms were drab, with nothing displayed. I might be judging unfairly – we only saw a glimpse; and I don’t like mice – but I’m not sure I would have bothered to attend that school. In the slum, we passed a house where a woman was reading to a whole room full of children. We were told it was ‘an education room’. It seemed much more child friendly than the school.

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Thank you for reading.