Speak softly but carry a big stick: India’s Pink Sari revolution

While the group uses reason and dialogue to act as mediator in domestic disagreements, in some cases however, the women have resorted to use of the lathis when the offenders refuse to listen.

Uttar Pradesh, Northern India - The ‘Gulabi Gang’ (gulabi in Hindi means ‘pink’) is the group of village women led by Sampat Pal Devi, a charismatic woman who, in 2006, founded it to defend women from the abuses of oppressive husbands, brothers and fathers. Its mission is to fight against child marriages, child labour, dowry demands and corruption. The Gulabi Gang, over 20,000 women, dress in pink saris and carry the traditional Indian bamboo’ stick, the lathi, also painted pink. While the group uses reason and dialogue to act as mediator in domestic disagreements, in some cases however, the women have resorted to use of the lathis when the offenders refuse to listen to reason and continue their abuses.

Demotix/Arundham Mukherjee. All rights reserved.

As a farmer’s daughter, Sampat laboured in the fields as a child. She was only eight years old when she organized her first, unconventional, protest. One of the children working in the fields with her was savagely beaten by the landowner’s daughter, also a child. His fault? Having used the fields as his toilet. The adults were unable to solve the dispute. At that point Sampat organized an unusual sit-in: she rallied all the children in the fields and they transformed the field into an open air toilet. The landowner’s daughter was taught a ‘dirty’ lesson.

Life in India for women and ‘dalits’

Although the Indian Constitution forbids discrimination against the ‘untouchables’ or ‘dalits’, as well as marriages between children, real living conditions lag far behind. Since 2010 a quota of 33% in the lower chamber of the Parliament has been reserved for women but this is not sufficient to change the overall condition of women in the country. Since the 1970s, cases of rape have shot up dramatically by 792% according to the National Crime Bureau. Usually, when the police register a case of female death caused by ‘kitchen fire’ it is not an accident: it’s homicide. ‘Dowry death’, when women are murdered or driven to suicide by continuous harassment by husbands and in-laws extorting a higher dowry, is also common. Often, crimes are not reported for fear of abuses by the police.

While a degree of social mobility exists in the urban centres, a rigid caste system prevails in the countryside. This has strong implications on voting patterns. The common saying still holds true that ‘in India you vote your caste, you do not cast your vote’.

The power of an ordinary woman with extraordinary courage

Her name became known when, having tried to defend a woman who was being abused by her husband, Sampat was also beaten up. The following day she returned with her lathi and five other women and the roles were reversed. The news of her violent and rebellious reaction was a sensation and many women came to her asking for protection. The force of her group lies in the mediation role it plays in disputes. From domestic quarrels to land disputes, to helping the illiterate elderly without birth certificates collect their pensions, the Gulabi Gang is there to assist.

The focal point for Sampat Pal is education. Born in 1960, Sampat is self-taught. Learning to use a sewing machine allowed her to gain a critical economic independence. Like most girls in her social bracket in the countryside she was married at twelve and received little formal education. Sampat makes education, particularly for girls, one of the focal points of her group’s efforts. Teaching girls to use a sewing machine and read will help free them from abuse. The Gulabi Gang improves the condition of the underprivileged - not only women - remarkably, more and more men support the group.

The challenges ahead

Despite the tremendous impact the Gulabi Gang’s work has in the Uttar Pradesh region, the condition of women in the country leaves no room for complacency. In 2012 Sampat Pal ran for office for the State Assembly and, although she did well, she did not win a seat. While the village women in the Gulabi Gang are considered heroines in the Indian villages, the group faces serious challenges in the future. Not least, what will happen to it the day its charismatic leader is no longer there?

For further reading, see Amana Fontanella-Khan, author of 'The Pink Sari Revolution' which will be coming out this April.

About the author

Gaja is the Mediterranean Fellow for the Atlantic Treaty in Association in Brussels, Belgium. Previously she worked for the European Commission as communications officer. She combines news articles for Corriere della Sera, France24 Observers, with radio shows and interviews, e.g. from Cuba with Polito Torres, the revolutionary and friend of Che Guevara, to New York at the Ground Zero mosque/community center. She holds a Master's degree in Economic History from the London School of Economics.