'Pink Sari Revolution' illuminates the power of grassroots activism
With her immense storytelling gift, Fontanella-Khan brings to life a group of courageous women who have overcome tremendous odds to create a movement that has the power to truly transform India.
New York: At a time when India is seen as complacent about an unthinkable level of violence against women, author Amana Fontanella-Khan reminds us that a different narrative is possible. In her new book, Pink Sari Revolution, Fontanella-Khan tells the extraordinary story of Sampat Pal and her all-women lathi-wielding, vigilante group, the Gulabi Gang, which illuminates the possibilities of female grassroots activism.
The book is timely as it recognizes the agency of women and their ability to take matters into their own hands, to rise and resist. With her immense storytelling gift, Fontanella-Khan brings to life a group of courageous women who have overcome tremendous odds to create a movement that has the power to truly transform India.
Pink Sari Revolution is an account of the Gulabi Gang’s development told through the story of Pal and one of those she helps, Sheelu Nishad, a seventeen-year-old girl. The Gulabi Gang championed housemaid Nishad, who had been raped by her employer Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a powerful Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader and member of the legislative assembly in Uttar Pradesh.
After the assault, Nishad was shoved into a police van from Dwivedi’s house on trumped-up theft charges filed by the legislator. After a Gulabi Gang district commander alerted Pal, the vigilantes ambushed the local police station, and took their protest to Dwivedi’s house. With the Gulabi Gang resolutely behind her, Nishad has stood strong and the prominent political figure has since been charged with raping the young girl.
“Ever resilient Sheelu is moving on with her life with incredible speed,” writes Fontanella-Khan of the young survivor, who bravely allowed the author to use her full name in the book.
“Often, the rhetoric around abused women is defined by their perceived powerlessness. This narrative reinforces the idea that women are passive, helpless people upon whom men impose their will. We need stories that recognize the agency of women and their ability to shape their lives and impact society. The Pink Gang reminds us that, through unity, power is within the reach of all women, no matter what their background,” Fontanella-Khan told The Wall Street Journal.
What comes through satisfactorily in the book is that Pal, a charismatic alpha woman, refuses to be intimidated by Uttar Pradesh’s politicians, whom Fontanella-Khan describes as having a “deeply entrenched reputation for being gangsters.” A statement backed up by grim statistics which show that in Uttar Pradesh, more than a fourth of the elected representatives in the legislative assembly have been charged with criminal offences ranging from attempted murder, rape to kidnapping.
Pal has always “felt keenly the offence of injustice – the sight of it smarted her.” Few places in India are as badly in need of justice as hardscrabble Bundlekhand, in Uttar Pradesh where Pal started her Gulabi Gang in 2006.
Pal’s desire for change which she believes can and must come from within a community, is rooted in her own experience. Married off around the age of twelve to an ice cream vendor, pregnant with her first child at fifteen, and prohibited from attending school, Pal felt suffocated by societal restrictions: “I was cooped up in the house like a rat.”
“I simply loathed the traditional view that girls should not be educated and that they should be married off early,” says Pal, who launched a progressive Gulabi Gang school in 2008, enrolling 250 children.
Pal is the courageous commander and chief of the Gulabi Gang which now has 40,000 members in villages across India. Uniformed in pink saris and carrying lathis, they aim to intervene wherever other women are victims of rape, domestic violence, abuse or injustice.
“If a woman really wishes she can put a man in his place,” believes Pal who was joined in her struggle by Babuji, a sensitive man whose intellectualism complements her innate sense of justice, and by a host of passionate field commanders. Pal has confronted policemen and gangsters, presided over love marriages, and empowered women to become financially independent.
After a brief foray into Bollywood as an Assistant Director, Fontanella-Khan moved to Brussels. She spent two years from August 2010 to 2012 painstakingly researching the book. One year into her travels to Bundlekhand, Fontanella-Khan lived with Pal and her family to create this engrossing portrait of one woman’s fight for female empowerment in India.
The spontaneous uprising of rural women has inspired several film projects. The Gulabi Gang is the subject of a nuanced documentary by gifted filmmaker Nishtha Jain. It’s also the subject of the 2010 movie, Pink Saris, by Kim Longinotto.
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