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The real face of beauty: Acid attack victim takes turn on catwalk to raise awareness

NEW YORK Two years ago, walking down the runway at New York Fashion Week was the furthest thing from Reshma Quereshi’s mind. The 17-year-old was recovering after losing an eye and suffering severe burns all over her face in an acid attack in Allahabad, India.

Now, 19, Quereshi is using her scars to challenge beauty standards and fight to restrict acid sales in countries where such attacks are common. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but advocates say upwards of 1,000 women and children are injured each year in acid attacks.

Welcomed with enthusiastic claps and cheers, Quereshi opened for Indian designer Archana Kochhar on Sept. 8 during the FTL Moda show. She wore a stunning ivory and floral gown and walked the runway like a pro.

The glamour of Fashion Week was a far cry from her hometown in India, where she and her sister were attacked by three men, including her sister’s abusive husband. Quereshi screamed for help, but no one around her intervened as she was pinned down and doused with concentrated sulfuric acid.  

After a year of extreme physical and emotional pain, Quereshi found help through Make Love Not Scars, a group that helps acid attack victims. She creates videos for the group’s YouTube channel in which she raises awareness about the dangers of acid attacks while also teaching people how to use beauty products.

Quereshi’s powerful videos have attracted more than a million views online. She was eventually contacted by Ilaria Niccolini, the president and founder of fashion production firm FTL Moda to walk in New York Fashion Week. Quereshi told CBS News through a translator how excited she was to leave her country for the first time.

And that excitement was matched by Niccolini.

“I wanted to provide these women who suffer brutality an opportunity,” Niccolini said.

The show was all part of a powerful movement called #TakeBeautyBack. FTL Moda joined forces with Global Disability Inclusion, LLC, Make Love Not Scars, Fashion Week Online and Samsung. The goal was to increase diversity of models, especially those with disabilities.

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Indian Acid attack survivor Reshma Quereshi of India struts the runway during the FTL Moda presentation at New York Fashion Week in New York City, on September 8, 2016. 

Trevor Collens/AFP/Getty Images

Niccoli said she “soul-picked” Reshma because she wanted to showcase “talent that would be able to stop all of us for a moment.”

Casting a variety of models has been an aim for FTL Moda. The fashion show also featured emerging model Shaholly Ayers, a congenital amputee, as well as international gymnast Chelsea Werner, who has Down syndrome. Past FTL Moda shows have also included models in wheelchairs.

“I’m not scared that I’m going to be walking in the show the way that I am,” Quereshi said through a translator before she took to the catwalk. “I am just happy that people are actually going to see that I am walking [despite] any of the stuff that happened to me. So I am just happy that there will be a lot of publicity surrounding the cause and it will … shed light [on] other girls like me.”