India’s Gulabi Gang – feminist justice, vigilante style
When I first hear about the Gulabi Gang in India, my initial feeling was exultation. Being from an Indian background myself, I’m used to the inherent and pervasive issues of sexism and misogyny that seep through almost every aspect of Indian culture.
I had never before seen Indian women taking action against sexism though – if anything, I was used to women perpetuating their own oppression to an extent by reinforcing the same sexist ideologies to their own daughters and sons.
The Gulabi Gang was the first time I heard of Indian women joining to collectively combat sexism – albeit through vigilante violence and retribution. The Gulabi Gang is a group of female activists from Uttar Pradesh, who first came into being in 2006. The Gang is led by Sampat Pal Devi, a mother of five who decided to take action against the continuing domestic violence and oppression of women that she saw in her community. Donning pink saris in unity for the cause, the Gang was originally formed to combat domestic violence, oppression and desertion by fathers, brothers and husbands. The women would ‘prevail upon men to see reason’, and resort to their wooden rods to assert justice when met with opposition.
There is no denying that Indian women have a lot to be angry for. Shuttled from their father’s household to their husband’s, many women are treated as no more than expensive property to be bargained with, sold off, and used as desired. Bride burnings, child marriages, female infanticide, domestic violence, sexual assault – it is perilous to be a woman in India, a fact that was confirmed when India was listed as the worst place in the world to be a woman.
The Gulabi Gang can be seen as an example of women empowering themselves against the constant oppression they face, and doling out justice on their own terms to the men that wrong them.
However, the use of violence in the Gang’s response raises a number of questions, particularly from the perspective of western societies like ours.
To me, there are two ways in which to look at the use of violence by the Gulabi Gang to (literally) fight the oppression of women, and to discourage domestic violence and sexual assault. On one hand, there is the argument that responding to violence with violence does nothing other than legitimise violence itself as a meaningful and reasonable response to oppression and opposition. It negates the message that violence against women is wrong, and suggests that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a suitable way in which to eke out justice.
This seems archaic, and counterproductive on several levels, particularly from our western perspective – in Australia, the thought of women beating up their male oppressors with wooden rods sounds incredulous, and would be considered a crime like any other incident of violence. It also grates against the commonly held ideals in western feminism, about the importance of awareness raising, and cultural education as opposed to the more direct response of a returned beating as punishment for violence against women. And ultimately, the use of fear to gain a result seems counterintuitive – won’t fear just brew further resentment? Couldn’t it lead to even more violence against women, as men attempt to reassert their dominance?
The problem that comes up when following this line of thought, however, is that India isn’t a western country, and the norms of western culture and feminism don’t really apply there. The cultural systems in India (and particularly rural Northern India, where the Gulabi Gang originated from) are incredibly fraught – poverty, the caste system, and the inherent corruption within the justice system mean that our notions of fairness and judicial punishment for wrongdoers just don’t exist in the same way in the context of Indian society.
Where the threat of reporting violence to the police might hold weight in Australia (although even that is debatable), such action is not really an option for Indian women. Similarly, wives and daughters in India remain largely economically dependent on their fathers and husbands, so escape is not a real possibility, and the oppression they face is compounded by their utter reliance on their attackers.
When these factors are taken into account, suddenly the notion of taking justice into one’s own hands seems like a more viable solution, and even the use of violence as a method to reinforce the message against sexual assault and oppression becomes more empowering and meaningful. In the context of the rural communities where the Gulabi Gang formed, violence is often used as a systematic way of oppressing, controlling, and proving dominance over others. Beating one’s wife or children is par for the course, and a man’s fists and superior strength are his ultimate weapons.
By turning the table on men who perpetrate violence, and using the violence that oppresses them as a weapon of their own, the women of the Gulabi Gang are in a way reappropriating physical violence as a method of punishment and justice, as opposed to the force of subjugation and victimization it has traditionally been in their lives.
Violence is also a punishment with an immediate effect – giving significant disincentive to causing harm to women, in a way that the deferred punishment of legal action (which isn’t a viable option anyway) can’t really achieve. In the context of rural India, the idea of prosecution or reporting of crimes against women is intangible, and doesn’t pose a strong level of threat to perpetrators. A physical assault, however, is a punishment that has strong immediate effects, and the added component of shame that occurs in the community when it is a woman doling out that punishment increases the level of risk associated with committing such crimes.
In many ways, the question of whether such violence is helping or hindering the cause for gender equality in India remains unanswered. The cultural differences between Indian society and western society create a gulf of understanding that can be difficult to surpass at times, and trying to analyse the Gulabi Gang from the perspective of my safe and ordered existence in Australia is unlikely to render results.
Ultimately, the fact that the Gulabi Gang has to exist, and that women in India have to take these matters into their own hands at all is disappointing – Indian society continues to undervalue women, to oppress them and subjugate them with the systemic misogyny. Whilst it is inspiring to see women defying this sexism, it is also disconcerting to thing that vigilante justice is needed in India to achieve what we almost take for granted in the west.