The streets of Banda, Uttar Pradesh were once filled with despair. Ranked 154 our 447 on the Planning Commission’s index of backwardness in 2003, caste-based violence, domestic abuse, and poverty were pervasive throughout Banda, with little to no police support. In the midst of such chaos, the Gulabi Gang formed to combat the widespread domestic abuse and violence against women.
Clad in “Gulabi”, or pink sarees, these women wield bamboo sticks as they accost male offenders. Most, if not all, members of the Gulabi Gang are of oppressed castes, as are the women they assist. The gang was initially created to “punish abusive husbands, fathers, and brothers in an effort to combat domestic violence and desertion”. The gang has various stations set up and each station has a “commander” that takes care of the problems of the women in her area. Through word of mouth, the location and purpose of these stations are spread to women in the district.
When a woman comes to the station to narrate the story of her abuse to the group, the police are immediately called. If the police fail to take charge, the Gulabi Gang takes over. Often, the gang accosts male members and calls upon them to understand their wrongdoings. If the men do not relent or resort to force, they are publicly shamed or beaten with bamboo sticks. Because the gang has over 200,000 members, they receive enough support from the women of each district, and by carrying bamboo sticks with them and walking in large groups, they prevent men from being able to successfully retaliate. Recently, the group has started to offer cost-effective services such as henna application, tailoring, and flower arrangements to provide their members with a source of income to sustain their lifestyle.
The work of Gulabi Gang has resulted in legislation to designate 33% of parliamentary seats for women in India. Even though this has brought upon many positive changes for women empowerment in India and legislation to promote gender equality, the Gulabi Gang continues to operate in their relevant areas. They prefer to work outside of politics because of the widespread corruption amongst Indian politicians.
Over time, the gang’s scope of issues has expanded from domestic violence to child marriage, dowry deaths, and access to education. They also target human rights and male oppression by actively encouraging men to get involved in activism. Many members of the Gulabi Gang are men who support the causes that the gang raises awareness for.
Because the scope of the gang has grown so much, the woman have been able to engage in undercover projects to bring deep-rooted government corruption to light. In 2007, the founder of the gang, Sampat Pal Devi, heard that government-run stores were not distributing food and grains in a village fairly. Due to widespread poverty, hundreds of families depended on this food to survive. The Gulabi Gang observed the shop undercover and found evidence that the store was shipping the allocated grains to open markets to make a higher profit. The gang reported the store to the local authorities, who ultimately ignored the complaints. However, this incident solidified Gulabi Gang’s reputation as an organization that fought for justice.
In 2008, Gulabi Gang stormed an electricity office in Banda to force them to turn the electricity back on. The office had cut the electricity to the district off in an effort to extract bribes. Additionally, the gang has stopped multiple child marriages and protested to receive justice for oppressed-caste rape victims. In India, police indifference to the rape of oppressed-caste women is pervasive, as is government action.
As an Indian-American feminist, I am blessed to be able to walk in the steps of the empowered women of the Gulabi Gang. India has a poor reputation with women’s rights and gender equality, which is often not acknowledged within the Indian community. The work of the Gulabi Gang is exposing how deep-rooted women’s oppression is in India, as well as creating solutions to empower women while fighting the patriarchy.
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