A girl at a protest in Hyderabad in April. Photo: Getty.
Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India
Oneworld, 304pp, £12.99
In December 2012, the gang rape of a female student on a bus in Delhi made headlines across the world. The sickening cruelty of the attack (the victim’s intestines were all but destroyed), not to mention the blasé manner in which the authorities initially treated the incident provoked a passionate debate about the treatment of women in Indian society.
The international media attention undoubtedly contributed to the swift arrest and charging of the alleged perpetrators but it is important to remember that the way this case played out was in no way typical of the Indian justice system. Claims of sexual violence often come up against police corruption, victim-blaming and counter-accusations and many women are made to endure disturbing medical “procedures” such as the “finger test”, which involves assessing the “laxness” of a rape victim’s vagina to draw conclusions about her sexual habits that can then be used in court – that is if the rape or assault is reported at all.
The burgeoning feminist protest movement in India has received significant attention in the western media, particularly in the weeks and months since the fatal attack (the young student died from her injuries less than a fortnight after she was raped). Among the movement’s best-known members are the Gulabi (or “pink”) Gang, a 20,000-strong group of stick-carrying, pink-sari-wearing vigilantes that originated in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state often described as “lawless”.
Following two documentaries and many articles dating back to the gang’s inception in 2006, this grass-roots group, led by Sampat Pal Devi, is the subject of the journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan’s first book, Pink Sari Revolution. The book conveys not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.
Fontanella-Khan describes how Sampat mobilised people to campaign for the release of a young woman called Sheelu. Sheelu’s escape from the house of a corrupt local politician who had kidnapped and raped her led to her imprisonment on bogus charges of theft. Sampat’s determined struggle to win justice for her provides the backbone of the book. Documentary evidence from interviews, articles and reports creates a vivid picture of the movement and is deftly interwoven with the personal histories of other women connected to the Gulabi Gang.
Then there is the tale of how the indefatigable Sampat, who received little formal education as a child and was forced into an arranged marriage at 12, before she was through puberty, became a persuasive advocate for women’s rights, defying her husband, her mother-in-law and the police, as well as the goons and bandits who so frequently threaten her safety.
Fontanella-Khan is not burdened by her thorough research and Pink Sari Revolution often reads more like a novel than reportage. Her talent for storytelling and her detailed, sometimes poetic, descriptions of events and places, combined with helpful explanations of the customs and politics, draw the reader in to create a fascinating portrait of a country in flux.
The subject matter doesn’t always make for easy reading, and yet a sense of hope begins to override the despair. Sampat’s strength and fearlessness are evident on every page. A feminist in the pure and simple sense that she believes in the equality of man and woman, she enthuses those around her through song. One lyric, about how women’s suffering passes down through the generations, includes the refrain: “The world is bad for girls,/Why isn’t it bad for boys?” It leaves many who hear it in tears.
By the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic: as well as campaigning for victims of rape and domestic violence, organising protests and challenging local corruption, the Pink Gang rescues young couples from arranged marriages and confronts violent husbands and corrupt policemen. Though the gang members’ first recourse is almost always to the law, they are not averse, when the husbands and policemen fail to take heed, to beating them with sticks.
Rape is the fastest-growing crime in India and horrific examples such as the 2012 Delhi bus attack would suggest that it is a little premature to describe the Pink Gang’s existence as a “revolution”. Yet what these women have done for Uttar Pradesh seems to amount to just that. As Jai Karan Bhai, one of the gang’s unofficial lawyers, says: “You have to snatch your rights. You cannot keep asking for them forever.”
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of the Vagenda blog and also writes for newstatesman.com