Friday, June 15, 2012

The Gulabi gang of India

The Gulabi gang (named after the fluorescent pink saris they wear) was founded by Sampat Pal Devi in 2006 in Banda in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. They began as a sisterhood that became more a squad of vigilantes in response to widespread domestic, sexual, & governmental violence against women & they use bamboo sticks to threaten or punish abusive husbands & officials. They now claim 20,000 members across North India. In the style of Robin Hood, they protest child marriages, dowry, female illiteracy, & official corruption. Abusive husbands are negotiated with first, threatened, & then pummeled with the bamboo sticks if they persist in violence. In one notorious instance they ambushed the local utility office which was withholding electricity unless they received bribes or sexual favors, roughed up the staff, locked them out, & took off with the key until power was restored. An hour later, the power which had been withheld for over two weeks was back on. Their most daring exploit was hijacking trucks of food meant for the poor being taken to market for sale by corrupt officials.

The founder, Sampat Pal Devi is the daughter of a shepherd put to work on family land while her brothers went to school & married off at the age of 12 to a 20-year old-ice cream vendor she had never met. She had the first of her five children at 15 & was not allowed by her mother-in-law to stop having children until she produced a boy. She now has a long list of criminal charges against her, including unlawful assembly, rioting, attacking a government employee, & obstructing an officer in the discharge of duty. She is nevertheless a folk hero in the tradition of Phoolan Devi, a woman from the same region, known as the Bandit Queen of India who was gang-raped by upper caste men & led a gang of robbers in retribution on upper caste villagers.

Vigilantism is certainly preferable to the despondency of women taking out the violence on themselves through self-immolation or hanging. But political activism is an alternative to vigilantism. Much political heft can be thrown around with 20,000 women carrying bamboo sticks & trained to wield them. The Gulabi gang is only the most prominent female gang & is often favorably reported in the media. India is sustaining a rise of female vigilante groups--termed a “mini-revolution” by some journalists--who are taking things into their own hands. Though it’s hard to see the downside to this female militancy, more violent vigilantism has been reported elsewhere in India among dispossessed women. In 2004, hundreds of women brutally killed a serial rapist after the courts failed to convict him over a period of 10 years. The women collectively claimed guilt for the murder, making it difficult for the police to charge anyone for the crime.

The gut reaction to this phenomenon of women defending themselves is to cheer them on exuberantly, but there is a long, regrettable history to vigilantism that begins as self defense & doesn’t inform itself with a vision of transformation. It gets stuck in retribution & ends up in criminality. The Gulabi gang has the potential to move beyond retribution to political transformation & when they do, media coverage will be far less favorable. The linked article is an interesting portrait of some of the women in the gang. In this photo "Commander" Sampat Pal of the Gulabi gang teaches women how to wield the bamboo baton.  (Photo by Sanjit Das)

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