Our New Heroes: Women in India are Fighting Injustice – With Bamboo Poles
A gang over 10,000 strong (some estimate that the gang numbers 40,000 and is growing) is fighting India’s ingrained sexism with all the means at their disposal — including hand-to-hand combat. The Gulabi (“Pink”) Gang, clad in pink saris and agile with their traditional fighting sticks (called lathi), avenge wronged women and impoverished, low-caste locals in one of India’s poorer regions. Vice reports that the gang’s leader, Sampat Pal Devi, “has emerged as a messianic figure in her home region” of Bundelkhand, in Uttar Pradesh.
The Gulabi Gang’s official website describes the region it works in as “one of the poorest districts in the country.” The Gang says that the area “is marked by a deeply patriarchal culture, rigid caste divisions, female illiteracy, domestic violence, child labour, child marriages and dowry demands.”
Devi and the gang fight all of these phenomena. The video below shows them challenging the government for doling out the benefits of a jobs program to people from higher castes rather than the poorest, lowest caste locals. They have opened a school for poor low-caste children, especially girls. The color pink predominates at the school. They also intervene on behalf of a young couple who want to marry for love against the wishes of both pairs of parents, and remind the groom not to beat his wife or there will be consequences.
Devi claims that the Gang has a 100 percent success rate in dealing with domestic violence. “We first speak to the husband who is beating his wife. If he doesn’t understand then we ask his wife to join us while we beat him with lathis.”
The Gang recommended a fitting punishment for the rapists and murderers who killed a 23-year-old woman on a bus in December. Devi called for the men to be chemically castrated. “The line, ‘I am a rapist’, should also be permanently etched on their foreheads,” she added, according to The Times of India. She believes that this punishment would deter potential rapists more effectively than hanging the criminals would.
Many of the Gang members have compelling personal stories. Banhari Devi, 42, falls below the poverty line but could not get the red card that would entitle her to subsidized food. “Sampat Devi came to my rescue,” Banhari Devi says. “She is like a messiah, always looking after the poor. She struggled for me and got me the red card.” Banhari Devi is now a proud member of the Gulabi Gang. She says that it has made her feel stronger and more self-confident.
Gang member Bhagwati Devi, 45, explains that if “the gang hears of some atrocities committed toward women, we conduct a gang meeting and discuss the best action we can take in that particular case and then act accordingly. In many cases, we first try to come to a peaceful solution, but if that doesn’t work, we use force. People are humiliated after being beaten up by us.”
One of the older members, 55-year-old Chandania Devi, has chosen child education as her crusade, with a focus on girls. She lives in a low-caste village that has few resources or outside help. The local school didn’t even have a teacher, but the Gulabi Gang changed that. Meanwhile Chandania Devi goes door-to-door raising awareness about the importance of educating girls. “Since I am an elderly woman and moreover a Gulabi Gang member, people pay attention to what I have to say,” she says.
Gang member Aarti Devi, 22, tells a revealing story about the Gang’s power.
About six months back, an upper-caste man raped a local dalit [member of the lowest "untouchable" caste] woman. Police refused to register the case. When my father protested, he and two others were taken into custody. I went to Sampat Devi and asked her for help. That same day I joined the gang and, led by Sampat Devi, we stormed the police station demanding the release of my father and the other villagers. The police still refused to register the case against the rapist. We ended up beating a policeman black-and-blue with lathis.
Beating a policeman may have been the best thing the Gulabi Gang could have done. It instilled fear and respect for the Gang and increased their influence. They do not usually resort to violence, but they are prepared to when it is necessary. It is a beautiful thing when the down-trodden, like women and members of the untouchable caste, can forge the power to stand up for themselves.
Photo credit: Fuse