In 2006, Sampat Pal witnessed a woman being brutally beaten by her husband in a North Indian village. When Pal verbally intervened, the man beat her as well. The next day, Pal returned with five women, and all six of them beat the man with lathis (bamboo sticks). Word of this bold act spread quickly, as women from all over the village rushed to Pal and begged her to come to their aid. As more and more women joined her interventions, Pal decided to give the group a name and a dress code. Thus the Gulabi Gang, gulabi meaning pink in Hindi, was born. Operating out of a small, pink house in Badausa, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Sampat Pal travels around North India uniting women on common grounds.
Now functioning as an NGO through Social Solutions India, the Gulabi Gang works to “stop child marriages…train women in self-defense…oppose corruption in administration… and publicly shame molesters.” Pal believes that because of illiteracy, many women in India lack the confidence to be self-reliant and outspoken, thus making them prime targets for men to exploit. Acting largely in Uttar Pradesh, the women of the Gulabi Gang, dressed in pink saris and armed with lathis, have no qualms using violence to amass national attention and responsiveness to the issues they have personally taken on.
Why calling the police just isn’t enough
One major push by the Gulabi Gang is to register FIRs (First Information Reports) against sex offenders and abusive husbands. FIRs are created by the police, usually at the request of a victim of a criminal offense. Only after an FIR is created will the police investigate a crime. Yet when women report cases of assault or rape, the police in India often disregard the complaint; no investigation is started and women are left hopeless.
Gita Singh-Parihar, leader of the Chitrakoot district of the Gulabi Gang, has experienced first-hand the disregard for women victims of violence by the Indian police. “Every time we raised the issue of injustice to women with the police, there was a stiff resistance,” she said.
The December 2012 Delhi gang rape and the lackluster police response have captured national attention and shed light on the experiences of many women in India. Pal put out a statement in response to the death of the Delhi rape victim that the Times of India named Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”: “The rapists should not be hanged as it would not serve any purpose, instead they should be chemically castrated,” she wrote. “The line, ‘I am a rapist’, should also be permanently etched on their foreheads”. Pal hopes this will serve as a lesson to the Delhi rapists and many others to “never dare to approach a girl with bad intention.” This statement of Pal’s illustrates the group’s outlook.
Using violence for justice
Pal was once attacked by a police officer when she attempted to file a report at the police station. In return, she beat the officer with her lathi. Although the Gulabi Gang uses peaceful tactics as their first solution, they do not hesitate to use violence when peaceful negotiations do not suffice. Now with the strength of more than 100,000 women across 17 districts in UP and other areas, the Gulabi Gang has grown exponentially from their original seven women. In a video interview, Pal evokes a quintessential Indian public figure in explaining the nature of her work. “I salute Gandhiji. He was the father of our nation,” she says. “But my style is different. I am Sampat Pal. I do what I think is right.”
Indeed, with respect to the rampant acts of violence against women and corrupt officials taking advantage of poor Indians of low social castes, the Gulabi Gang’s actions are garnering much-needed attention, and small progresses are made with each intervention. Living within a system that has failed women and those of lower social castes, the Gulabi Gang is a symbol of hope and progress for thousands in India. The pink of their saris symbolizing “womanhood and understated strength,” these women, an overwhelming majority of whom have been victims of violence themselves, take matters into their own hands.
More than just lathis and vengeance
The Gulabi Gang is not a group of vicious, vindictive women. While they often use violence against those who have used violence to prey and exploit those with little defense, the Gulabi Gang has done other work that does not involve violence. Pal and the Gulabi Gang have established a school for young girls, coating the building in pink. Pal, commuting on a rickety bicycle and using an outdated Nokia phone, travels around to various villages to give motivational speeches, help improve the confidence of women, give advice, and train women in self-defense.
These women believe so passionately in justice that they sacrifice their safety to come to the aid of others. What binds the Gulabi women together is the abuse they have endured. What makes the Gulabi women great is the relentless vigor that they put into everything they do. If they have to exert force and use violence as the weapon of choice to end injustice, they will. As Pal might say, they are the Gulabi Gang, and they do what they think is right.