NEW YORK (AFP) - An Indian teenager who lost an eye and whose face was brutally disfigured in an acid attack walked the New York catwalk to whoops and cheers Thursday in what she called a life-changing experience.
Reshma Qureshi, 19, brushed off nerves to stride the runway like a pro in a stunning cream and floral floor-length gown by Indian designer Archana Kochhar on the first official day of New York Fashion Week.
"I feel really good and the experience was great," she told AFP afterward, speaking in Hindi through a translator. "I feel as though it has definitely changed my life." She was invited to take part by FTL Moda, a fashion production company committed to challenging industry stereotypes of beauty and which last year invited a model with Down Syndrome to take part.
Qureshi, whose ambition remains to finish the last two grades of high school and go to college, said she hoped her participation would send a powerful message to other acid attack survivors.
"Why should we not enjoy our lives? What happened to us is not our fault and we've done nothing wrong and so we should also move forward in life," she told AFP the night before the show.
Acid attacks, which overwhelmingly target women and children, are a particular scourge in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East.
In India, an estimated 500 to 1,000 attacks take place each year, and while they rarely kill they leave severe physical, psychological and social scars that can see victims ostracised and hidden away.
Thursday's show came the same day an Indian court sentenced a man to death for murdering a 24-year-old woman by throwing acid on her face after she rejected his offer of marriage, in a landmark judgement.
Since Qureshi was attacked by her brother-in-law in 2004, pinned down by his friends and her face doused in acid, she has become the face of a campaign to end the open sale of acid in India.
As slim as any professional model and with thick, luxurious hair, she appears in YouTube videos, filmed in her home base of Mumbai, and offering beauty tips and make-up advice.
Just moments before hitting the catwalk she clung to the arm of a floor assistant. But with her hair swept into a chignon with a delicate headpiece, professional make-up and her model frame flattered by the curves of the gown, she quickly turned into a natural.
"I want to tell the world - do not see us in a weak light and see that even we can go out and do things," she told AFP.
"People have a tendency to look at acid attack survivors from one perspective and I don't want them to look at them like that anymore," she said.
Backstage she was embraced by a fellow model and then lent over the balcony watching part of the rest of the show which featured evening and daywear for men and women by a handful of different designers.
As much as the audience of stylists, bloggers and members of the Indian diaspora whooped and cheered, Qureshi had come across on the eve of the show as rather overwhelmed and understandably jet lagged.
The daughter of a taxi driver and abroad for the first time, she was accompanied by a representative of the charity she works with, but flung into the bulb-popping, high-octane world of Manhattan fashion.
She answered questions politely, saying that New York seemed "very nice" even though she had barely slept on the long, transcontinental flight and had no time to even see the skyline.
But with her New York debut under her belt, she was much happier. She will walk in a second show Thursday before heading out to dinner and is keen to see as much as possible of the Big Apple.
"I do feel brave," she said.