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India's Female Vigilantes Sampat Pal Devi, pictured with her husband.   Photograph by Deni Y. Béchard.

India's Female Vigilantes

Following high-profile rape and murder in Delhi, can coalitions of women stop gender-based abuse in India?

IN DECEMBER, a Facebook friend posted a photo of the Gulabi Gang—vigilante women in Northern India who wear pink saris and carry bamboo lathis that they use to beat abusive men. In the picture, Sampat Pal Devi, the gang’s fifty-year-old leader, stands at the front, her lathi—essentially a club—propped on her shoulder, her jaw set as if she were considering taking a swing. The numerous comments below the photo echoed my first thought: Wow. This is badass.

It was no accident that the viral photo coincided with massive street protests in Delhi over the recent gang rape, beating and death of a twenty-three-year-old medical intern. Every time I browsed the news, another article decried India’s rape epidemic and the indifference of its police to sex crimes. It made me wonder if the Gulabi Gang needed to spread—if vigilantism might be an immediate solution to gender-based violence.  

During a recent stay in India, I arranged to meet with Devi to get her view on what, as the public debate over sexual violence in India reached a fever pitch, was beginning to look like a national identity crisis. She lives in Uttar Pradesh, in the isolated region of Bundelkhand. The night trip from Delhi took twelve hours, and the train pulled into the Atarra station at 8 am. The January sun burned off the mist, revealing broken streets and collapsing buildings, the landscape flat, horse- and oxen-drawn carts far more common than cars. Devi stood on the platform, shorter than I’d expected and wearing not a sari but a pink fleece jacket. She hugged me, then held my hand as if we were old friends, smiling, her front teeth gapped, her eyes somewhere between hazel and green. Standing nearby was the Gulabi Gang’s coordinator, Jay Prakash, a man with a carefully groomed silver mustache. When Devi spoke in Hindi, he translated, saying that I would be seeing no women with lathis, since the next day was her daughter’s wedding.

“You must understand,” he told me, “it is calm here. This is where the Gulabi Gang started. We have no need for lathis. Only in other villages, there is work to be done.”

THOUGH SEXUAL VIOLENCE is a daily occurrence in India, the sheer brutality of the December 16 gang rape mobilized thousands of citizens, leading to weeks of protests and clashes with the police. After watching Life of Pi, the medical intern and a male friend were returning home just before 10 pm, and they boarded what they took to be a city bus. But the six young men in it, including its driver, were on a joyride. The men allegedly beat the two friends with a rusty metal bar, then took turns raping the young woman, even forcing the bar into her anus and tearing out 95 percent of her intestines before throwing her and her unconscious friend from the moving vehicle. She died six days later of brain damage.

The rape released a nation’s pent-up outrage, not unlike when the self-immolation—almost exactly two years before—of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi triggered the Arab Spring. The repercussions of the rape would not be as wide or significant as the Middle East uprisings, but the protests and public outcry served as a reminder of the suffering of women throughout India.

Devi and her gang seemed ideal spokespersons for this uprising. Her website shows photos of her training other women to fight with lathis, like samurais at practice. One article about her claimed that she hated men. Though she’d made the Gulabi Gang an official organization in 2006, codifying its philosophy and conduct, she had started her work in the 1980s. Caste divisions were still deeply entrenched in Bundelkhand, and she mobilized lower-caste people to contest abuse by Brahmins. Over time, she gathered women to confront rapists, bellicose men and would-be husbands of child brides, as well as corrupt officials and police. Her network is now so successful that, according to Prakash, the organization has recently grown to four hundred thousand members, both men and women, in seventeen of the seventy-five districts of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and impoverished state.

Devi has also won significant international recognition; when we met, she had just returned from Norway, where she’d been featured in a documentary. In 2012, a Frenchwoman wrote a book, Warrior in a Pink Sari, about her, and a Bollywood film, Gulaab Gang, came out earlier this year. She has also competed on the television show Bigg Boss, the Indian equivalent of Big Brother, though she was voted off after several episodes.

Shortly after I arrived, Devi handed me a Gulabi Gang card, with her listed as “commander”—a title that seems to suit her. At her house, a narrow, three-storey pink building in a small village in Banda District, she shouted orders, pausing only to introduce me to her four daughters and son, as well as to her husband—a rawboned man in his seventies whom she’d married when she was twelve. We went up the roof, where the village women sang and prepared food. One mixed turmeric and water in a metal dish, then made handprints along the low wall, part of a ritual in preparation for the wedding.

Devi talked at length about her objectives with women: helping them win the freedom to work outside their homes and giving them support if they chose to leave their husbands. She explained the Gulabi Gang’s structure: a pyramid with numerous village leaders reporting to regional leaders, who all reported to her. If a problem arose, the leader in that area brought the members together to discuss the conflict and find a solution. If they couldn’t, they contacted Devi. If someone needed financial help, all of the members in the region pooled resources. But when I asked how she went about approaching violent husbands, her response was very different from how she is normally presented in the media.

“She says she is not against men,” Prakash translated, “because society is made with the man and the woman. They are the essence. The world is made with man and woman. We have to not separate. She says that first we have to see what is the problem and how this problem was created. And if someone’s wrong, Sampat tries to make a compromise ...” Prakash hesitated, searching for words. “Only if he comes not in the right way, then she applies beating.”

I asked about the gang rape in Delhi, but she dismissed the question. “It’s not like that!” she said. “In India, we also worship women. Rape is not such a problem.”

I pressed the point, and Devi shouted for a long time in response, speaking of the rapists: “These are not educated people. One thing is poorness. There is a fashion also, with the girl seeing the boy, then blaming him ...”

At first I didn’t understand. Then I realized that Devi was attributing rape to romantic relationships, rather than to proper arranged marriages; she was saying that a girl who fell in love might later accuse the boy of rape in order to save her honour. So I again asked about the gang rape and the death, wondering whether the Gulabi Gang—which had so successfully improved women’s rights in rural, impoverished areas—could be influential in India’s cities. Devi just nodded, mulling over a response, looking a little dejected, as if she didn’t want to think about violence right now.

IN DELHI, just before the court case began, the defendants’ lawyer revealed the view of rape that many Indians seem to hold. In news reports, Manohar Lal Sharma is quoted as placing the blame on the woman’s male companion, saying that the unmarried couple should not have been out at night. “Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” he said. “Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.” He wasn’t the only one who thought so. A number of India’s politicians, pundits and spiritual leaders agreed that the two victims were to blame.

Batull Tavawala, a forty-nine-year-old woman who, from her offices in Mumbai, directs several women’s organizations throughout India, explained to me how this mentality worked: a respectable woman abides by social rules, is protected by the men of her family and therefore cannot be touched. Vulnerable women, on the other hand, bring suffering upon themselves. Tavawala gave the example of street girls, one of her principal areas of concern.

“The street girl is by default viewed as a sex worker, by virtue of the fact that she is available and within easy reach,” she said. According to Tavawala, the very presence of street girls legitimizes prevalent sexist views; the girls’ vulnerability socializes urban men to see women as objects to be abused, and unpunished rapes reinforce predatory behaviour. That street girls frequently become sex workers confirms men’s belief that all women who step outside of traditional roles are available for intercourse.

Tavawala suggested that Indian society doesn’t need vigilantism so much as legal and social protection of its most vulnerable members. One of the initiatives that she directs is the Rainbow Homes Foundation, an organization whose goal is to educate street girls, providing them with lodging and support until they are legal adults. (In Delhi alone, nearly fifty-one thousand children live on the street—almost 1 percent of the city’s youth.) Founded in 2002, Rainbow Homes was the brainchild of Sister M. Cyril Mooney, an Irish nun who has worked as an educator in Kolkata since 1956. One night, across from the school where she was principal, a very young street girl was raped. Sister Cyril saw, as she recalled, “my own big school lying vacant with big classrooms, halls, toilets, wash-places, water, fans and everything laid on, so I began to bring them in to live.”  

From this grew a plan that, with the financial support of a Dutch businessman, started to spread: the use of public schools as homes for street girls during the sixteen hours each day they sit empty. Ten years later, more than thirty homes in major Indian cities have fostered over two thousand girls, with cooks, specialized teachers and guardians to watch over them. Unlike many programs, the Rainbow Homes offer care and education until the girls are financially independent.

Even as new Rainbow Homes are established, the Indian government has adopted the organization’s model. Though the eighty-sixth amendment to India’s constitution promises free and compulsory education to children ages six to fourteen, girls without family support are largely unable to attend, and for girls living in the street there is virtually no hope of education. As a result, in 2011, the government revised its Education for All Movement to include a plan to house, support and educate girls whose families cannot do so. The preparation of six hundred new residential centers is underway.  

I visited one of the Rainbow Homes in Old Delhi, after being warned that the girls had almost all suffered sexual abuse and trauma. The young women stood together in groups, shoulder to shoulder or arm in arm. It was impossible not to sense the solidarity. All were attending public or private schools, or receiving remedial education to get them up to speed for their age level. A number of the girls spoke passable English and asked me questions. When, after an hour, I took out my camera, they began taking pictures of each other, four or five girls gathering at a time, smiling, making the peace symbol.

RATES OF RAPE are notoriously difficult to document. Whereas Australia and Sweden have some of the world’s highest rates of rape per capita, this might be because women there feel safer speaking out. New York City has about half the population of Delhi but records nearly three times as many rapes each year. Canada’s annual rape rate per one hundred thousand people is 1.7, whereas India’s is 1.8, but in Canada only 6 percent of rapes are thought to be reported.

There is currently no reliable way to evaluate the rate of rape reporting in India, and, in light of the social stigma, it is likely quite low. Until recent reforms, some Indian doctors performed a test on rape survivors that involved putting two fingers into the woman’s vagina to verify that the muscles weren’t “lax” and that her hymen had recently been broken, suggesting that only virgins can be raped and that all other women consent to intercourse. In many rape cases, rural police encourage the women to marry their attackers, and those who report rape may have a harder time finding husbands and receiving dowries.

One well-known Indian rape case, from 1996, highlighted the difficulties for women who try to seek justice. The “Suryanelli girl,” nicknamed by the press for her village in Kerala, was kidnapped when she was sixteen and repeatedly raped by more than forty men over a period of as many days. A court tried and convicted thirty-five of the men, but a second court overturned all but one of the convictions, stating that the girl had a deviant character because she’d already had a lover, and that, after her kidnapping, she’d been used for prostitution, which was not rape.

Violence against women, however, is a global issue, and we don’t have to travel far to be outraged by the discourse around rape. For example, last year, the Missouri politician Todd Akin infamously said that women who faced “legitimate rape” didn’t need abortions because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

IN HER VILLAGE, Devi held court, sitting in a chair near the street, discussing ideas with men who grouped about, their teeth red as they chewed betel nut. As she spoke to the men, she answered my question regarding rape more clearly than when I had asked it directly.
“She is saying,” Prakash told me, “that many of our traditions are wrong and aren’t sacred. They are just practices that someone started a long time ago and others copied, like marrying children or giving dowries so women can marry. The true practices are the ones that make sense. She is saying that women have always been valued. When you chant mantra, you always say the woman’s name first, like Sita-Ram. To avoid rape, we have to restore women’s value in society. We have to give her back her power. She had her role traditionally.”

But, as I asked more questions, I understood that Devi was indeed more conservative than I expected. She preferred arranged marriages so long as the two youths met in advance and gave their consent. She believed that such marriages knit people deeper into the social fabric, giving them a wide support network. As for the dowry system, in which families basically sell their daughters in exchange for a husband—the price going up depending on his status, education and general success—she opposed it only if a dowry was requested. If it was given voluntarily, she saw no problem. Despite her image as a warrior, I could see her working through individual issues carefully, giving each one a great deal of thought as she tried to find a middle way between traditional values and the need for change.

Later, as guests and neighbours gathered on Devi’s roof, men began shouting in the street. A crowd was forming around a prone man. One of Devi’s daughters knelt, crying. From the roof, I could see only two white pant legs through the people. The fallen man seemed to be Devi’s husband. Several people lifted his limp body, his head lolling back, a bleeding gash across his scalp. The black Land Cruiser that had brought us from Atarra pulled up, and the group hurried him inside. Then the vehicle raced off.

One of Devi’s friends climbed the stairs and told me that Devi’s husband had gone to a nearby temple to worship. A man had attacked him with a club, breaking both of his arms and striking him in the head. Villagers had carried him back here, unconscious, on a bamboo bed.
No one would explain to me why the man attacked Devi’s husband, telling me only that he’d since been arrested and was jealous of the attention she received. Before arriving, I had read that a number of men in the area had threatened Devi with violence, and I couldn’t help but wonder if an attack on her husband during the preparations for her daughter’s wedding—when a foreign journalist was visiting, no less—was her enemies’ way of sending a message.

TAVAWALA WAS LESS SANGUINE than Devi about sexism in Indian society. “Gender bias is rampant across almost every class and culture here in India. Perhaps not as much in the South, as it is a more matriarchal society. The North by far is the worst,” she told me. “While we pray to goddesses, we abuse women and view them as second-class citizens. More often than not, a girl child has to fight her way to study, go out, just be. The problem lies with the men who cannot cope with the women who are gradually changing in India, which is why there are multiple crimes against women. It’s an underlying rage and a way to suppress women who they think are aggressive or immoral.”

At some point in their lives, virtually all Indian women will be groped in the street or verbally harassed. The dowry system makes girls a burden on many homes, resulting in high levels of female infanticide and violence against brides whose families don’t, or can’t, provide sufficient dowries. Sons, considered the family’s future breadwinners, are largely favoured and receive the bulk of the family’s resources. Daughters usually get less medical attention, less schooling, even less food. The result is women who are poorly equipped to survive and dependent on men for their needs.

However, the December gang rape has already led to reforms in India’s judicial systems. A commission was convened, under the guidance of J.S. Verma, a former chief justice, to provide a report on sexual violence and suggest amendments to the penal code. It concluded that both the government and the police were to blame for sex crimes, and suggested more severe punishments for rape and an overhaul of the police system.

As a result, a new ordinance was passed that amended preexisting laws and incorporated many of the commission’s suggestions. The criminal offence of sexual assault now includes stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks, trafficking and sexual harassment. It also allows for the death penalty in extreme rape cases, such as when the victim dies or goes into a persistent vegetative state. Delhi police stations have opened twenty-four-hour help desks for women; rape-case registrations have gone up by 158 percent, those for physical molestation by 600 percent and verbal harassment by 700 percent. But women’s-rights activists in India have denounced the new ordinance, saying that there was insufficient public consultation and that it does not address a number of issues, including marital rape or rape by members of the military, who are not subject to ordinary criminal laws.

The December rape trial is now in its final stages. The youngest defendant, whom the other five accused of being the most brutal and of using the iron bar, is in juvenile court and, being a minor, is likely to go free after three years in a remand home. Dental prints of two of the others match with the bite marks on the victim’s body. One of the five men was found hanging from a ventilation shaft in his cell, having either committed suicide or been killed. The change in attitude among Indians is clear. The recent rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi’s slums was met with new protests, and even the Suryanelli girl’s case has been reopened.

WHEN I FIRST SAW THE GULABI GANG photo on Facebook, it caught my interest because I had been in the process of researching female coalitions among animals. Though relatively rare, they do exist in a number of mammal species. In animals like tree kangaroos and baboons, female bonding often provides protection against males. The best-known female coalitions are among primates, and studies in human evolutionary biology increasingly emphasize the importance of female solidarity. Over millions of years, female coalitions may have forced males to become more sedentary, helping prioritize long-term female interest in raising offspring over male’s short-term sexual interests.

One of the best-known examples of primate female coalitions occurs with the bonobo, a great ape that, like the chimpanzee, shares more than 98.6 percent of its DNA with humans. However, the bonobo is the only great-ape species never to have been witnessed killing another of its kind, either in the wild or in captivity. The secret to this, as researchers discovered after years of observation, is that females forge strong bonds. When a male is aggressive, they gang up on him. Scientists have theorized that female bonobos essentially domesticated the species, removing violent tendencies from the gene pool.

Harvard professor Diane Rosenfeld has developed what she calls the “Bonobo Principle,” referring to women’s ability to bond together in order to protect themselves in societies whose cultural practices and legal systems reinforce male power over women. In the essay “Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans,” she writes, “In both rape and domestic violence, male-male alliances function to fracture the formation of female-female alliances in profoundly important ways. Because of the prevalence of male sexual violence, women learn to seek male protection as the first line of defense. Such learned dependence might blind women from recognizing their own collective power to defend against male aggression.”

In Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Harvard zoologist Richard Wrangham and science journalist Dale Peterson describe chimpanzee societies: the members compete for limited food resources, the females are coerced and beaten, and the males fight, often fatally, for breeding rights. The authors then look at bonobos. In their societies, resources are shared, a male’s rank is determined by that of his mother and all members of the group care for infants. Wrangham and Peterson contemplate humans moving in this direction through female coalitions, though they caution that, so long as women compete for men and reward male risk-taking with reproductive advantage, change will not come easily. Women themselves will have to abandon the male value system in which they have been raised.

In light of this, it’s easy to see why a radical cultural transition will take time. We can’t expect feminist utopias from movements like the Gulabi Gang, and though Devi was more traditional than I expected, she was possibly more successful as a result. As a man, I had wanted to see how a human female coalition would work—how it would engage or isolate men in the community. However, rather than upending the social order, Devi was simply cleaning it up, picking her battles, careful not to polarize the sexes in a region where women have only recently begun to show their faces in public.

But the Gulabi Gang still has problems. Devi’s life has been threatened on several occasions, and she faces pending legal battles for her past defiance of authority. Some of the people who claimed to be helping her were instead taking advantage. For a while, a French website accepted donations for the Gulabi Gang without telling Devi or Prakash how much money it was receiving. Soumik Sen, the director of the Bollywood film about the Gulabi Gang, hadn’t asked Devi permission or paid her. He called the film Gulaab Gang to differentiate it. These are challenges that crowds of women with lathis can’t yet confront.

As for Devi’s husband, he spent the wedding lying on a cot, his arms in two casts and his head bandaged, the guests pausing to greet him as they came and went. Though taking photos of Devi had, until then, been difficult, given that she was constantly in motion, this changed the morning after the wedding. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me outside to where her husband lay on his bed, in the sun. She motioned for me to take photos as she sat next to him, the joy of the wedding gone from her eyes. I got the sense that she wanted to send a message: being a women’s-rights activist in India still has its dangers.

IN SOME WAYS, the Gulabi Gang is less a vigilante group than a political one. Numerous members admit that their use of the lathi is exaggerated; they have never even seen anyone beat up, let alone used a club themselves. They are fully aware that the lathi cannot prevent sexual violence in an increasingly urbanized country of over 1.2 billion people. Rather, their coalition creates change through social pressure. The Gulabi Gang’s flamboyant image wins media support and legitimizes women’s concerns, giving female voices a more central place.
On a subtler level, the Rainbow Homes also do what Devi aspires to: empower women while protecting the marginalized. I could imagine that many of these former street girls would remain lifelong friends, and in them I saw the roots of a movement that could build into a more mature solidarity. One of the graduates had her own apartment and job, and had recently adopted a street girl herself.

Sister Cyril’s realization, before she began the Rainbow Homes Foundation, that her school sat empty most of the time reminds me of a lesson from the bonobos. The success of their coalitions is based on their wealth of resources and the way that they share. While bonobos do not have to compete with each other to survive, more violent primates compete within their groups for sustenance. Sister Cyril saw that India, despite its widespread poverty, did not lack the resources to raise street girls and include them in society.

Though Devi’s and Sister Cyril’s work can’t replace a functional legal system, their ideas are spreading quickly. There’s no grand philosophy, nothing groundbreaking in their logic. It’s utterly simple: by protecting its most vulnerable members, society strengthens itself as a whole. And despite the media’s emphasis on Devi’s lathi, she confirms that it’s a last resort—that only sometimes is violence necessary to make people pay attention. Unfortunately, India’s wake-up call has come at the expense of a twenty-three-year-old medical student who was gang-raped and beaten with a metal bar.

Editor's Note: The original headline of this piece, as it appears in print in Issue 48, is Sticks and Stones. After a discussion between the author of the piece and Maisonneuve staff, we decided to change the title of the piece online. Read more about that decision here.