The international and Indian media has failed to represent women in non-conventional roles. While the list of atrocities, crimes, subjugation and discrimination against women is endless and keeps expanding, the cultural, religious and even spiritual representation of women mostly just helps to add fuel to the fire.
I do not like to delve in this because it is an endless abyss of disappointment that gets me nowhere. I cannot look to history, traditions or culture for anything. And by anything I mean everything, whether its more understanding, a solution or any form of objective assessment of issues etc.
Why this matter of representation bothers me the most is because of the plain hypocrisy in our culture that I cannot stop witnessing while most others fail to even notice its existence. For example, India has been shocked into a pathetic realization about where women stand in our society with the horrific rape incidents that are thrown at us every few months. But a worse realization for me is the hypocrisy in our society which is so entrenched that the same people who express staunch opposition for such acts, lose no time in queuing up for bollywood movies such as ‘Dhoom3’ etc filled with item songs and female actresses whose only roles are to wear short clothes, dance around and basically test/entice the audience’s libido.
This is why it was a much needed and welcome relief when my father gave me ‘Warrior in a Pink Sari’- Sampat Pal.
Although media and history love hyping up figures and creating larger than life characters, it is very rare that I have felt such a sense of heroism that I have experienced after reading this book. Even if Sampat Pal were not a woman, I would have been inspired to write about her for the sheer inherent awesomeness that she displays in her simple words and arguments. Oh and I cannot even begin to outline the awesomeness of her actions.
But she is a woman, and the kind of awesome woman who is missing from our society, who is not talked about in our media, and who has mostly never found a place in history(or for that matter in our religion). But her voice needs to be heard(**).
‘The Gulabi gang named for the pink uniform worn by its members, rose to fame between 2006-2007, very soon after it was formed. It came up as a vigilante women’s group who took upon itself the formidable task of battling the three pillars of Indian society- patriarchy, caste and corruption- in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh. Dressed in Pink Saris with sticks in their hands, these women would march to the police station or the district magistrate’s office and demand justice for other women who suffered domestic violence and MEN who were victims of caste discrimination and corruption. The woman who clad them in pink and handed them the lathis was their leader- Sampat Devi Pal.'(*1. On why she chose the colour Pink)
Sampat Devi Pal was born in the village of Kairi. At the age of eight she secretly managed to attend school but had to stop two years later on being discovered. She was never able to take up formal education ever again in life. To this day she remains illiterate, (an adjective she gets deeply offended by). She was married at age 12 and by 20, had had 5 kids. Despite all this and more, it is amazing that she has created so much impact and has been able to come up with such articulate arguments that have inspired many others like her to unite in her cause. (*2.Sampat Pal in her own words).
In an irony of sorts, her story first came out as a French book by Anne Berthod. It was only four years later that it was transalated in English. An irony that Sampat Pal herself recognizes(2nd last paragraph of this article).
What follows are a few paragraphs that struck me the most in the book. So without further ado, presenting to you excerpts from the book, the pure awesomeness that is Sampat Pal:
“Look at the swear words or the gaalis for example. Why are they always about women? Behenchod (sisterfucker), matherchod (motherfucker), betichod (daughterfucker). Take any crude expression and its always about women. The other day I was asked to settle a conflict between two brothers who were tearing each other to shreds because one brother’s goat was grazing in the other’s field. The argument became more heated. One called the other behenchod. What did his sister have to do with his goat? The other replied, ‘Matherchod!’. What was that all about? Those two idiots had the same mother! It never occurred to them that they were insulting their own sister and mother, the woman who brought them into the world. It was ridiculous!”
Mahabharata is a Hindu epic of the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Draupadi was the wife to all the five pandavas ( Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandava lost her to the Kauravas in a game of dice and then Dushasana,the 2nd eldest Kaurava tried to strip her in full view of the entire assembly. Draupadi returned to Pandavas, dishonored. Pandavas raged an epic battle against the Kauravas after 13 years of exile to regain their kingdom and honor*3).
“I’ve thought a great deal about the Mahabharatha. Even at the beginning of everything, there was a woman. She was the main stake. Thousands of men killed each other over her. And why? In reality neither the Pandavas, who gambled her as a stake in a dice game as if she were some old horse, nor the Kauravas who wanted her to belong to them showed her any respect. The whole business was primarily about power. 4000 years later men haven’t changed a bit. They are still tyrannical, want to control everything and impose their domination, even when they are weak and full of vices. They gamble away their salaries, drink alcohol and beat up their wives. Worse still, many of them go looking for work in the cities and stay away for months to fulfill their mission. During this time, to forget how lonely they are, they get drunk and sleep with prostitutes, and when they eventually come home, they bring back diseases with them. Thats how AIDS began to spread in the villages.”
“When we got married, my husband used to smoke ganja. When we first arrived in Badausa, during the time he was out of work, he would be sitting in the courtyard of our house, puffing on his pipe all day long and doing nothing else. He was wrecking his health. I couldn’t stand the sight of his dazed eyes and constant apathy. So I forced him to stop. I’ve always tried to get him to make an effort. We used to argue all the time because he didn’t want to work harder. At that time I was the one bringing in the money, looking after our family, taking care of the children as well as the house. Yet Munni Lal never missed an opportunity to present himself as the head of the family.”
“This is the paradox in the male dominated society, which is so humiliating for women. Women are despised and relegated to an inferior status and yet it is they who actually wear the pants in the house. They see to everything-the children, the housework, cooking and washing, and even the household accounts. In Rauli no one argued with my mother-in-law’s decisions, not even my father-in-law. That creep forced me to marry off my daughters at a very early age, but he never dared raise his voice against his wife. Men’s bravery is all show. In reality they’re cowards. Most of them are selfish and act only in their own interests. Take my husband for example. He approves of my work and gives me moral support, but he refuses to do any more than that. He says it’s because he is a simple man who can’t take initiative. To listen to him you’d think that all he wants is for me to tell him what to do. What dishonesty! If I ask him to come with me to my village, he always finds some excuse not to come. Infact he is not really interested in my work. What I do is beyond him.”
“I’m also wary of ‘charismatic leaders’ whose glory obscures the contributions of thousands of anonymous workers on the ground who are less well known, but probably more effective. Take Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, for example. He’s dead now, but everyone still regards him as the patron saint of Dalits. In 1950 Nehru asked him to draw up the first Indian constitution, a text that enshrines the Dalit’s right to education and prohibition of discrimination against Dalits and women. Today though he is presented as the sole author of the text, he didnt write it all by himself. He headed a commission of several hundred people who all made suggestions and fought to get their ideas included. But the collective memory has forgotten all those people, remembering only the name of Dr. Ambedkar. Thats unfair.”
“At the moment the only donations I’ve received have come from foreign journalists visiting me from the US, the UK, France, Italy and Korea. However, the press in my own country has take little interest in me. I’m aware that the recognition of my work by Indians will only come via the international scene. If the biologist Hargobind Khorana hadn’t emigrated to the United States, he never would have won the Nobel Prize in 1968 and would never have become famous in India. This is also why I agreed to write this book. And then, like all those travellers who come here from far ends of the earth, I too dream of travelling to other countries, exploring new horizons. My publisher has promised to bring me to Paris and I just cant wait! I would love to talk to French women, to tell them that despite our cultural and linguistic differences, women have the same problem on every continent. I’ve even heard there’s a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Paris. If ever I have the chance to see it, I’ll prostrate myself before it and pray for the liberation of all the women in India who are held prisoner by invisible chains that are stronger than titanium”.
For a complete picture of the things she has done to take on injustice, from threatening police inspectors to beating up thugs to forcing district magistrates to resign, one will of course have to read the book. She is a woman of action but her insight and her powerful inner voice were what struck me the most.
If you aren’t tired of reading, here are the asterisks explained:
*1. “It was just a matter of choosing a common colour. Bapuji first opted for blue but that was the official color of the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP). Then we thought of yellow or orange but that was too reminiscent of Sadhus and Pandits. Green and white are often worn by Congress volunteers and red is used by Samajwadi Party. The only colour remaining was pink, one that was commonly found and remained exclusive to women. It was easy to find any woman’s wardrobe. Most women would be able to afford it.
*2. “There’s nothing exceptional about me and I haven’t suffered more than the rest. Born into a poor family from one of the most despised castes and with no education, I’m just a woman like millions of others in India. My marriage and my husband were imposed on me and for a long time I submitted to the ways of my world. Like so many others I could have become a victim. But one day I said no to the law of men. It wasnt easy but I managed to choose my own life. Today Im the leader of the gang and I defend all victims of injustice: the despised, the poor, the exploited, victims of corruption. I know my cause is just and that certainty strips me of my fear. Im not impressed by authority. I’ll put a police inspector in his place just as soon as I’ll lecture a sheperd from my own caste. Physically I’m not very big but I have a solid constitution. I have a powerful voice and people listen to me. I am a woman and to make myself heard I have to make more noise than the rest-peacefully whenever possible, and with the help of my fists if I must.”
*3. For an excellent analysis of this event, one can read about the same in Gurcharan Das’ ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’.
** Just before I started writing this article, I caught the trailer of ‘Gulaab Gang’ on youtube. But then I came across this, ‘Initially, it was reported that the Bollywood film, Gulaab Gang, starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla as leads, is based on Sampat Pal’s life, but the director denied this, saying that he is obliged to her work but the movie is not based on her life.’ And because Bollywood in general does not fail to disappoint, so much for that.