Sampat Pal Devi, a mother of five in Banda, one of India’s poorest areas, says “nobody comes to our help in these parts. The officials and the police are corrupt and anti-poor. So sometimes we have to take the law in our hands.” To do this, she started the “gulabi gang,” or pink gang, two years ago. The gang members wear pink and use beatings and humiliation to combat domestic abuse and corruption.
Devi and her fellow vigilantes are a sign of how bad things can be for women in India — Banda natives say it’s no surprise that women have resorted to violence to combat discrimination. But it’s also a sign that things may be improving, that after generations of second-class status, Indian women are taking unprecedented social power.
They have a lot to fight against. Though prenatal gender testing and gender-selective abortion are now illegal in India, having a baby girl is still widely considered shameful, and over 10 million baby girls have been killed in the last 20 years. Only 798 girls were born in Punjab last year for every 1,000 boys. Because of dowry requirements, many families think of girls as a financial liability, and stories of women being abused are common. The problem isn’t confined to poor areas like Banda — Delhi pediatrician Mitu Khurana is taking legal action against her husband and his family for trying to force her to abort her twin girls. “Even as an educated woman,” she says, “I am pushed around.”
The Times of India, however, tells a different story. According to an article called “Macho girls!,” “women in every sphere have come into their own in the last two decades.” They are entering traditionally male professions, becoming collections agents and security guards on the India-Pakistan border. They are dressing in Western suits in order to appear more “businesslike.” Fitness expert Leena Mogre says “the Madonna influence” has caused 40 percent more women in the last year to seek “defined arms, something that was earlier only demanded by men.”
Sangeeta Singh, executive director of international accounting firm KPMG, says “economic independence has made women feel more confident about their personal lives. Hence, they are taking more personal decisions or forming their own support networks.” Many women in Banda don’t have economic independence. And many throughout India still suffer from the prejudice against girls. But if the pink gang is any indication, women across Indian society are indeed “forming their own support networks.” Sampat Pal Devi says, “village society in India is loaded against women. […] Village women need to study and become independent to sort it out themselves.” And although their methods may be a little disturbing (thrashing a policeman, for instance), the pink gang is doing exactly that.