Being interested in feminist scholarship, especially in the Indian context; one of my friends suggested I read Pink Sari Revolution about how a woman from a village in Uttar Pradesh rose to insurmountable power despite the deeply patriarchal structure of the society that she came from. Reading this book has raised a lot of questions in my mind and I am sure it will do the same with other readers when they try to bridge the gap between feminist theory on one hand and practice on the other, after reading it.
Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India 2013
Author: Amana Fontanella Khan
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co. (6 September 2013)
Genre: Non- Fiction
About the Author: Amana Fontanella Khan is a Brussels-based writer and she is a contributor to Slate, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, the Christian Silence Monitor and has been an editor at Vogue India.
‘Pink Sari Revolution’ is a book inspired by the activities of the ‘Gulabi Gang‘ in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh. Gulabi Gang is representative of the extraordinary women’s movement in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh led by Sampat Pal Devi in 2006.
Sampat Pal was married off as a child to a much older man and had her first child at the age of fifteen. She did not have any exposure to the outside world and was barely literate – factors that did not affect her journey as the crusader for the rights of the marginalized. Sampat had an unshakeable sense of what is just and unjust and used it to challenge the rigid patriarchal and caste hierarchies in the village and inspire others to do the same.
Sampat was barely in her early twenties when she was already a mother of five kids and it was then that she realized that she felt suffocated by the restrictions placed on her- “I was cooped up in the house like a rat.”
Isn’t this the story of mostly all housewives? Nobody likes the restrictions that are imposed on them and they constantly feel that they do not “work” despite spending the entire day doing household chores which are a part of the care economy and hence undervalued for not yielding any economic benefits.
She recognized that economic independence was one of the many paths to self-reliance and to avoid the never-ending, repetitive household work. She said, “Freedom is when I have my own money…” Sampat’s story is an explicit example as to how the issue of women “empowerment” is not an alien Western concept. The feminist movement is about being inclusive to all the marginalized sections of the society and especially to their women because it is they who are doubly marginalized due to the patriarchal structure embedded in their own communities as well.
Sampat started capitalizing on her sewing skills to live life as an independent individual without having to depend on her husband or sons. She formed a group of women in Gadarian Purva to fight against a man called Ram Milan who would beat his child wife Dookli terribly. The narrative of an abused women is usually ridden with tropes of powerlessness and the rhetoric of victimization. However, Sampat Pal overturned this rhetoric and reinforced the idea and importance of having a sisterhood in order to defeat the oppressor.
This particular (translated) song which is given in the book struck me as it displayed Sampat’s skill at reaching out to the masses and bring them to her side.
“Wake up, Wake up you indian women
this is the era to become awake
we should do our job,where sisters can work we won’t call men there,
we will solve our problems in our own, we will make our lives better
the time has come to wake up, we will educate both girls and boys together
we will allow no difference between them, we will improve their lives…”
While reading this book, one could easily connect the dots between the feminist theory that we are taught in a classroom and the practical movement which was led by a woman who would probably not even know the meaning of the word “feminism”.
The Gulabi Gang reminds us that through unity and harmony with each other, power is within the reach of women no matter what community do they belong to. This is particularly evident from the fact that Sampat herself belonged to a lower caste and also lower class background but she had the zeal and courage to fight the double oppression in her own society and ensuring that justice was meted the deserved people.
Pink Sari Revolution is mainly about how one woman can galvanize a movement for justice in a structural system of failed bureaucracy and administration where she fights against the corrupt politicians and police to ensure that women have their rights since corruption in the system disproportionately affects women in many covert ways.
However, what can be seen is that to get agency and power in any setting in the society, women from time to time have to opt for “masculine” methods of being violent and aggressive in order to gain legitimacy and also to instill fear among people. This is evident from the fact that Gulabi Gang often uses violence (lathi charge) in order to teach the oppressor a lesson.
While we do not condone violence, it can be argued that the Gulabi Gang does not harm anyone in an extreme way but they use sticks as a weapon to scare off people so as to secure themselves from any external threat.
Fontanella Khan’s epilogue is insightful. She writes about how the conditions and lives of women in India are worsening over time with the increase in reports of rape and domestic violence, however the rate of conviction remains very low. The task of Pink Gang remains crucial in making these issues visible and bringing them to the forefront. However what remains missing is the structural accountability of the police, politicians and the administrators who are enmeshed and the perpetrators of the oppressive structures of the society.
Lastly, let us take a look at what inspired Amana Fontanella Khan to write on Gulabi Gang.