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Brave Women Fighting for Equality in India

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Gulabi Gang members.

Gulabi Gang members.

What Is the Gulabi Gang?

Wearing pink saris, some women in India have joined together in a effort to demolish the patriarchal society and the caste system. They call themselves the Gulabi Gang (gulabi being the Hindi word for pink) and they wield bamboo sticks, which they are not afraid to use on domestic abuse offenders.

The Origin of the Gulabi Gang

The Banda District of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India is one of the poorest regions in the sub-continent. According to the Gulabi Gang, the area is “marked by a deeply patriarchal culture, rigid caste divisions, female illiteracy, domestic violence, child labour, child marriages, and dowry demands.”

By 2006, social activist Sampat Pal Devi had had enough of the oppression of women and decided to do something about it. She gathered around her like-minded women to form a vigilante movement.

The caste system has been in existence for at least 3,000 years and rigidly stratifies society into five main levels with thousands of sub-castes. It springs from the Hindu religion in the belief that it was formed by Brahma, the god of creation.

At the lowest level are Shudras, people who do menial work, but below them are Dalits. These are people who live outside the caste system and are deemed untouchable. It is among these unfortunate individuals that Pal Devi found many of her recruits.

Conditions for Vigilantism

In May 2018, a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in Jharkand in eastern India. The culprits were arrested and brought before a village council. The National Compass reports that “Amazingly, the council decided that the penalty for the atrocity would be—in lieu of arrest and imprisonment—to order each rapist to perform 100 sit-ups and pay a fine . . .”

Aggrieved at what they saw as the severity of the penalty, the rapists “went to the home of the victim, assaulted the family, and set the dwelling on fire, burning their victim to death.”

This kind of grotesque atrocity is not unusual in India, a country with a terrible rape culture. The country's National Crime Records Bureau reported the incidence of rape in India in 2019 was 5.2 per 100,000. Compare this with a rate of 0.5 per 100,000 in the United States.

Mukesh Singh was convicted for his role in an extremely violent gang rape of a girl in New Delhi in 2012. In 2015, he told a BBC documentary crew that “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” adding that “When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.”

Writing for Vox, Amanda Taub remarks that Singh's “comments reflect attitudes that are disturbingly common in India, and that are central to its climate of hostility toward women and, often, impunity for male violence against them.”

It's within this climate of acceptance of sexual assault being normal and punishments for it being trivial that vigilantism grows. The women of the Gulabi Gang are saying if society and authorities won't protect us, we'll have to do it ourselves.

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A 2011 study carried out by the International Center for Research on Women found that almost one in four Indian men admitted to having raped someone; far higher than in any other country surveyed.

Gulabi Gang Actions

Founder of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi, justified their vigilantism, saying “Nobody comes to our help in these parts. The officials and the police are corrupt and anti-poor. So, sometimes we have to take the law in our hands. At other times, we prefer to shame the wrongdoers.”

She is the embodiment of the traditional and patriarchal society that still dominates rural India. Her parents betrothed her when she was nine years old. At 12, she moved into her husband's house and, a year later, gave birth to her first child.

India's rural society is one in which women are expected to be totally obedient to their husbands and are discouraged from getting an education, marrying later, and being independent. A developing urban class is moving away from this rigid oppression of women.

Pal Devi rebelled against these restrictions and early on learned the power of the bamboo stick, known as a lathi. Writing for Al Jazeera, Shweta Desai describes how “in the 1980s . . . she used it against a neighbor who abused his wife. Devi’s intervention had the desired result and the recalcitrant husband was forced to mend his ways.”

When the group becomes aware of an injustice, they first try negotiations and rallies, perhaps even hunger strikes. If they don't get their grievance addressed, it's time to bring out the lathis.

They address issues other than sexual abuse and the subjugation of women. In one case, a local electricity company cut power to some users and demanded bribes to turn it back on. The Gulabi Gang showed up at the company offices brandishing their bamboo polls and the electricity service was soon restored.

There have been successful individual battles, but a feminist who goes by the single name of Priyanshi says the Gulabi Gang hasn't had much of an impact on the bigger issue of the systemic undervaluing of women.

However satisfying it might be to beat on a child molester or abuser of females, the larger campaign for the acceptance of women as equals might take generations.

Gulabi Gang women sometimes resort to violence.

Gulabi Gang women sometimes resort to violence.

Bonus Factoids

  • Queen of Jhansi, Rani Laxmibai, often been called India’s Joan of Arc, is another woman who rebelled against the establishment. She raised and led an army of 14,000 men and women in May 1857 in an uprising against the British occupation of India. Initially successful, she was involved in a battle in June 1858 and was killed. She was about 29 years old.
  • In 1974, Phoolan Devi was sold in marriage at the age of 11 to a man three times her age; he got a bicycle and a cow in the transaction. He was abusive and she ran away when she was 16 and joined a group of bandits; they robbed trains, invaded homes of the wealthy, held people for ransom, and committed murder. Eventually, she grew tired of life on the run, surrendered to police, and served an 11-year prison sentence. On release, she remade herself and entered politics. She formed a party dedicated to helping India's least advantaged people and won a seat in parliament. But, her advocacy for untouchables and others rubbed some people the wrong way and she was assassinated in July 2001.
  • Depending on whose source you believe, the Gulabi Gang may have 10,000 members or 400,000.

Vigilantism

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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