The Gulabi Gang’s Feminist Vigilantism: Violence and Articulation within a Social Movement

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Yes, we fight rapists with lathis (sticks). If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again,” brags Sampat Devi Pal, founder of the Pink Sari Gang, popularly known as the Gulabi Gang. Rooted in one of the poorest and most populated villages of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, north India, this all woman group prides in its collective identity as vigilantes and are literally, wielding sticks and fighting for women’s equality and liberty in the area.

The inhabitants of Bundelkhand have to, on a daily basis, struggle against infertility of local lands, extreme poverty, illiteracy, frequent droughts, a corrupt judicial system and an oppressive and deeply hierarchical caste system on one hand and frequent incidences of rape, child marriage, domestic abuse, dowry deaths. etc on the other. What started as a one-time saving action wherein Sampat Pal Devi rounded up a few women and along with them, beat up a neighbor who abused his wife, has now grown into a feisty network of rebellious women across over eleven districts of India’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh, each honing a stick, ready to follow and deliver Sampat Devi’s alternate model of justice. With the vision to ‘protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption’, the gang and its agenda found resonance with much of India’s population, where reports of sex crimes, domestic violence and gang rapes blighted the smooth functioning of the society.

Every marginalized community in India faces some kind of violence or the other. However, women who hail from a lower caste face a heightened version of this marginalization. “Baichi jat” or “all women constitute a caste” best describes the status of women in marginalized communities. Caste movements and women’s movements have hitherto come into being in the Indian scenario, but this is the first time that a movement for women from the lower caste is coming to the fore.

In this case, we see that women’s vigilantism has successfully proved to be an effective and temporary strategy to combat localized instances of gender violence. However, feminist scholarship throws light upon reasons why this sort of agency in resisting patriarchal forms of culture doesn’t fit into the long-term principles of feminist action. These instances of retributive ghettoizing and attacking the perpetrators does posit us with a moral and ethical predicament as to how far are they permanently justifiable in the eyes of the law and order set in place by society. Nevertheless, the Gulabi gang and its collective acts of aggression have managed to foster new feminist linkages for these women, allowing them options of social and physical mobility which were hitherto inaccessible.

Through the various activities and issues the gang takes up, we can reach a consensus that marginalized women who have utilized such organized forms of violence in order to gain justice, actually find themselves walking the thin line between legally punishable and socially acceptable action. Atreyee Sen argues that such women’s groups that function outside the legal system ultimately end up adopting a language of politics and pacifism in order to gain legitimacy and credibility as a social movement. One can observe that female vigilantism, in disempowered communities, attains a credible space when examined through the lens of ‘ethical violence’ and other related understandings of proportionate punishment for crimes against women. Sen, quotes Shanti, a member of the gang since 2007, “In all the time that I have been with the gang, we only beat people, we have never murdered anyone”.

Deniz Kandiyoti in her essay ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, talks about the abstract notion of patriarchy as seen in contemporary feminist theory. She takes up a systematic and comparative examination of women’s strategies in coping with different forms of patriarchy. She says that while different forms of patriarchy assign women ‘distinct rules of the game’, women have to traditionally come up with a novel set of strategies for both active and passive resistance, ie women in different locations, spatially and culturally, have to make different kinds of patriarchal bargains to deal with the situations they are in. This study of hers leads her to opine that an analysis of different forms of resistance reflects a culturally and geographically grounded understanding of various patriarchal systems.

Members of the Gulaabi Gang during a meeting.

While there are many men who associate with the ideals of the gang and even help them out in all ways possible, there are no men who are a part of the core gang. Their biggest support, according to Sampat, is by not being obstacles. Every male member of the community who isn’t a hindrance to or who doesn’t stop a woman from being a member of the gang, is in his own way, supporting the gang. They are content with being able to contribute economically and supporting the gang and its functioning wholeheartedly and are not comfortable looking at true agency as being a core part of the movement.

Amana Fontanella Khan, journalist and author of Pink Saree Revolution says that the law and justice system of Bundelkhand being dysfunctional and unreliable, Sampat Devi’s vision of gender equality and freedom has been successful because of her bold and creative ways of protest, further empowering and helping women, thus offering an alternative means of attaining justice where the state has left a vacuum. Nishita Jain, a filmmaker whose movie ‘Gulab Gang’ sought to throw light on the tale of these women, asserts, “It is ironic that in one of India’s most backward regions, women are forced to become ‘masculine’ and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy,”

A deeper look at the various strategic choices adopted by the Gulabi Gang leads us to a more nuanced understanding of this movement’s dynamics. The Gulabi Gang goes about implementing various strategies, both innovative and creative which remarkably make them stand out in this regard. They once planted seeds and saplings into potholes after multiple complaints to the administration had failed to work. This act openly ridiculed the system and saw an instant response on the part of the officials. When the police or any official administration fails to register a complaint, even after multiple efforts to initiate informative dialogue, the gang resorts to collectively sitting outside the concerned offices, refusing to move until their demands are met. They train regularly as a group, attempting to learn defense mechanisms, trying their best to never use it but always ready and prepared to. The use of lathis or bamboo sticks when nothing else works, is also, though illegitimate, an innovative means of protest. Along with discussion and dialogue, the Gulabi Gang also uses different forms of illegitimate violence, the uses of which can be read as being threefold: subtle forms of violence allow them to attract the attention of their counterparts, engages potential members and strengthens solidarity among gang members.

While most of these variations are rooted in completely cultural and historical processes, it is often seen that women take up protectionist roles for themselves, sometimes for their fellow female members and sometimes collectively as a group. The Gulabi Gang and its birth in the fiercely patriarchal, casteist and vulnerable context for Indian lower caste, dalit women can be read as one such strategy to combat the oppressive forces around these women in Bundelkhand. This movement, though a reaction in many senses, has been successful in solving the issues of the community till date. “Our missions have a 100 percent success rate. We have never failed in bringing justice when it comes to domestic problems,” said Sampat about their resistance and its impact on the society they are a part of. Irrespective of all the shams and queries raised against the ethical nuances of the gang and its working, the truth still holds that the women in the community benefit socially and personally from the presence and working of the gang, they feel empowered to be a part of it and more than anything else, have seen a fulfilment of their needs, both protectoral and rights based, via the functioning of the gang. The Gulabi gang suffices to solve the problems of these women, at a time and scenario in which no other authority or institution easily would.

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Operating Officer at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Aljazeera

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One Future Inspire I Chintan Modi: Storytelling for Peace

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One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.


Team One Future interviewed Chintan Modi — a writer, educator, researcher and teacher trainer based in Mumbai. At present, he consults with the Prajnya Trust in Chennai on their Education for Peace initiative to work with teachers as potential peacebuilders, making a difference in the world beyond their immediate subject specializations. He has worked with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, Seeds of Peace, the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Kabir Project, the Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust, and the Red Elephant Foundation.

Chintan has designed and facilitated workshops to strengthen critical thinking related to issues of communal violence, caste privilege, gender discrimination and being queer. He has contributed to a guidebook for textbook writers that focuses on how to integrate peace, social justice, global citizenship and sustainable development into subject-specific learning materials.

He is the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an India-Pakistan peace initiative that focuses on storytelling, peace education, and creative use of social media to strengthen counter-narratives to hateful media propaganda.

Chintan Modi

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What made you establish Friendships Across Borders?

Personal journeys are difficult to sum up because they are fairly non-linear. I visited Pakistan for the first time in 2012. It was intense and magical. I was a school teacher back then, and the school I used to work with was participating in an Indo-Pak peace initiative called Exchange for Change. The five-day trip to Lahore lit a sort of spark in me. I wanted to transition from being an English teacher to a peace educator. I wanted to use my facilitation skills for something that I had begun to care about so passionately that I could think of nothing else to devote my energy to. I began to visit various schools and colleges in India and Pakistan to initiate dialogue to get students to think critically about war-mongering narratives spread through textbooks, media channels and platforms available to politicians, religious leaders and terrorist outfits. In 2014, I decided to streamline my efforts. On Valentine’s Day, I launched Friendships Across Borders — also known as Aao Dosti Karein — as an initiative that would focus on peace education, storytelling and social media advocacy to break if not demolish the walls between Indians and Pakistanis.

We understand that you work extensively towards creating more space for conversation. Could you tell us about your work with Mardon Waali Baat?

Over the last few years, as I began to deepen my involvement with peace education, I found that had not addressed how the patriarchy informs the discourse around war, security and nationalism. These are not topics that most people think about on a daily basis, so I felt the need to anchor the discussion around patriarchy in something more immediately relevant.

I started facilitating conversations with men’s groups, hoping that we could unpack what toxic masculinity has to done to our relationships, our capacity to feel and express emotions, our negotiations with gender roles, the way we think about gender identity and sexual orientation/preference, how we talk about intimacy and sexual violence, and our ability to seek support.

Mardon Waali Baat is a jibe against the bro-code that dehumanizes women, upholds heteronormativity, and makes invisible the everyday violence that the patriarchy makes possible. We must actively resist the idea that the world is made up of two halves — women and men. Development sector discourse around gender equality, especially in India, is often ignorant of intersectionality and reinforces binary ways of thinking. It creates the impression that intersex, trans, queer and non-binary persons do not exist.

What are the challenges you face at work? What kind of resources do you require to work in this field?

My work is a labour of love. It is an expression of what matters to me and how I want to lead my life. However, I have not invested time in registering a formal organization, setting up a team or instituting an annual calendar of programming. I focus my attention on small projects, and collaborate with a variety of people. I have been fortunate to come across individuals and organizations with shared interests, and this has expanded the joy I find in my work.

Being an educator can be emotionally exhausting, especially when one is fighting entrenched forms of violence such as Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and bi-erasure. Every time I facilitate a group, I have to prepare myself, listen with full attention, and later create the time to unwind because it is intense. Self-care demands time and resources. The work I do is valued by a lot of people but those who seek it are often reluctant to pay for the time and skills I bring to the table. They seem to think that I ought to do it for a noble cause. I have stopped working with people who come with this mindset.  

What is your concept of a mentor?

I have benefited hugely from the guidance of my teachers and colleagues but I don’t think anyone in particular took me under their wing and offered to be my mentor. My personality is such that I tend to seek out different people for different things instead of having one go-to person who is expected to know all the answers to all my questions. I also enjoy inter-generational conversations — there is much to be learnt if people stop fussing over the age difference, and keep their focus on what one person can offer the other.

Describe a day in your life.

I live with my parents, so the day is often organized according to the rhythms of the household. I work mostly from home, and travel only for meetings. There are times when I want to be left alone, so I head out to a coffee shop that will allow me to linger. A typical day in my life is filled with reading, thinking, writing, eating, sleeping, tweeting, watering plants, listening to music, and being occupied with email correspondence. My days look different when I am facilitating workshops or training sessions. I tend to prioritize self-care, before and after. I used to spend a lot of time writing letters by hand, zen doodling, going for walks, meditating, and watching films on Netflix. I haven’t done any of those things in a long time. I need to change that.

Why is storytelling important?

It is through stories that we make meaning of life, which might be an entirely meaningless unfolding over time and space if we did not have poetry, relationships, philosophy, science, mythology, history, religion and so much else. All of these are made up of stories. Notions of time and space, too, are stories. My understanding of who I am is a story. My perception of the value of what I do in terms of peace education is also a story. It is through stories that we get to narrate our own life experiences, learn about the journeys of people whose circumstances are different from ours, and also find common ground.

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

I would like them to know that I see myself as a facilitator, and not as someone who has sorted out all the dilemmas of life and is now here to ‘fix’ people who are struggling. Sometimes, people come with such high expectations to a workshop that they forget about their own agency. A facilitator can only catalyze your awareness, and work with you to access opportunities for learning. It is not their job or their place to take responsibility for your learning. That is your task and your commitment.

Which country’s policies on community living and equal rights are worth learning from and why?

I wish I could have answered this question but I have not spent enough time researching policies on community living and equal rights in various countries. I think there is often a tendency to look towards Europe and North America because they are assumed to have the best of what is possible for human civilization but we need to learn from the global South as well. It isn’t enough to have policies that sound good on paper. They must be implemented in order to be meaningful. Apart from policies, it might also help to study traditional practices and community mechanisms that have evolved organically without the explicit intervention or decree of the state.

Describe 3 books or tell us about three people that have impacted your life.

The first book that comes to mind is Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, a novel about a little girl who loves climbing trees, staring outside the classroom window, talking to birds, and playing with her dog. After being expelled from a school that has no appreciation for the gifts she brings to the universe, her mother finds her another one where she flourishes. The headmaster of the school is a kind man whose unusual ways resonate with the children, and with me. For him, education is not about stuffing a child’s mind with knowledge that will be summoned up in a distant future. He is in tune with their needs and questions, their dreams and struggles. No wonder I love that book so much!

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron are my other two favourites. I seek refuge in them when my barrel of love needs a refill. They help me drop the inessentials that block my view of how things really are. They hold me when I am exhausted, have my back when the humans around me are utterly disappointing. They restore my ability to rejoice in my own power — a power that is born of compassion, not of domination.

What is your advice to the youth?

Stay young in your thoughts. Dogma is easy to fall prey to. There will be people who do not take you seriously just because you refuse to nod in agreement with the flavour of the season. Your conviction in your own truth can see you through some really difficult times. It might get lonely, but that is better than being in a party you cannot stand.

The universe will respond to your sincere intentions, and support will come from unexpected places. Do what you need to do to keep yourself sane and strong. It doesn’t matter if people scoff at you for seeking peace in a shrine, a spa or a shopping mall.

You will find what you seek if you keep at it.

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The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression

Women’s Economic Empowerment: Financial Independence and Happiness

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Here’s to stronger, ambitious, content and empowered women.

The Oxford dictionary defines empowerment as “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights”. While the Indian constitution bestows upon the women six fundamental rights, I believe that in most circumstances, women are not in control of their lives enough to make free-willed and rational choices. A major part of this empowerment is derived from being financially independent. To understand the importance of this thought it would be only advisable to look at the women who are financially dependent.

We are aware of the patriarchal society that we live in and hence are naturally, socially and psychologically conditioned to make choices while keeping in mind the men-folk of the family and the prospect of being answerable to them in major instances. This I believe is problematic in the larger context of a woman’s position in the society. For example, women generally chart out their career paths in such a way that the destination is marriage. Following this, they inevitably take a break to fulfil the expectations of attending to the needs of the family while surrendering themselves to the financial care of their husbands. Although the notion lacks statistics one could always look around to find many women making this choice with the guidance of the society. This presents a grave picture in the context of a report released by the Union Health Ministry stating that approximately 31 % of married women experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses. In addition, domestic violence remained “the most complained of” issue as stated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development from 2015–2017 in their annual report. Both these highlight that financial dependence on husbands only results in a state of helplessness further preventing them from moving out of tensed relationships. Although we have laws in place which let women be able to support themselves, the implementation is poor.

                                                                                    Source: Greenarea.me

While this is the dismal state of the dependents, there is a large number of women working across several sectors to earn their livelihoods. A paycheck or a daily wage gives a sense of achievement and confidence to make further choices without any obligations or burden. The idea of splurging on travels and shopping, making business investments or supporting one’s family during medical emergencies without worrying about borrowing money is a huge boost to the one’s self-worth. Financial independence fills oneself with confidence and the strength to control situations. This is helpful on the account of divorces which women would easily opt for if they had the financial resources to start afresh.

More importantly, financial independence allows a woman’s voice to be heard, get exposure in the world and various options to improve interpersonal relationships. Isn’t it a great boost to your morale on accounts when family members, colleagues or friends turn to you for opinions because of an understanding that these have been informed by your experiences and independent choices. The independence further instils a sense of responsibility that ensures the sustenance of their finances for the future. As this inspires other women to make such choices, it will reiterate the importance of education and vocational training to be able to earn this independence with certainty.

From the several stories I have personally heard as well as the ones I read while writing this article, these are the reasons why I believe women should strive to be financially independent:

  • To support oneself during unfortunate life occurrences such as health emergencies or death.
  • To support oneself and one’s family by paying bills and sharing the ever increasing cost of living.
  • To be able to pay for further education or make investments in dream projects.
  • To be able to buy oneself opportunities to learn, explore and save for future goals.
  • To be able to feel happy and content with one’s choices.

In this regard, there’s a famed quote by Ayn Rand which informs us about the importance of happiness and its derivation from the freedom to choose our goals and achieve them.

The pursuit of happiness means a man’s right to set his own goals, to chose his values and to achieve them. Happiness means that state of consciousness which comes from the achievement of your values. Now what can be more important than happiness. Happiness means a profound guiltless, rational feeling of self-esteem and pride in one’s own achievement.”

The need to be free and maintain a list of goals for this lends a sense of purpose to life and its achievements and outcomes will result in complete happiness.

 

Feature Image Credit: Rutgers.international

 

Shivani Gayakwad is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective and a researcher for Compliance, Forensics and Intelligence at Control Risks India. She has expertise in South Asian politics and interest in women’s menstrual health and financial independence.

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Queer Infocus | July 2020

The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression