Chal kapde utaar!’ ‘Come on—take your clothes off!’ my rap- ist barked at me. He was a high-caste man and had followed me into the field. I shouldn’t have headed to the pastures alone, but I really had to relieve myself.“I tried to run on the mud path, but the man caught up with me and slammed my head against a tree. . . . After he was finished, he spat on me. I was only eighteen. I went to the police, the politicians. Everyone said I had asked for it, going into the fields by myself. I wept a lot. My husband finally left me and he took our boys. I was left with nothing at a young age. Now in my fifties I go around beating men who attack village girls. You asked me why I joined the Gulabi Gang. . . . So that women after me can walk through fields with long, fearless strides.”
Banwari Devi was defiant and proud as she told her story to Dr. Atreyee Sen.* Banwari is one of the senior members of the Gulabi Gang, a group of village women from northern India founded in 2006 to combat violence against women.
Banwari herself was fifty-two when Dr. Sen shadowed her and the Gu- labi Gang for a month in 2009, but she looked much older—with shriveled brown skin and a crooked back from a lifetime of hard labor in the fields. Like many women in rural India, she was married at fifteen. Her husband left her because it was shameful to be married to a woman who had been raped. For a woman with no husband, life is very difficult— she often cannot get consistent work and is dependent on odd day jobs. Getting financial support from an ex-husband is nearly impossible, particularly for poorer women who can’t afford t he lawyers and y ears o f wrangling to force their husbands to pay. It is also seen as inappropriate for single women to live alone, so most have to move back in with relatives where they are seen as a burden. Banwari experienced this excruciating injustice. Yet she and her fellow gang members are not victims. They are strong and unbowed.
While India has a fairly modern penal code prohibiting rape and do- mestic violence, in rural areas, and especially for low-caste women, these laws are rarely enforced. Police routinely refuse to get involved.
The Gulabi Gang finally had enough. The women wear pink saris and carry bamboo sticks to confront abusive husbands, protest against child marriage, and force recalcitrant policemen to take action on rape cases. The pink Gulabi ladies are now such a powerful presence that they rarely have to resort to violence. Just appearing in a village is often enough to get domestic disputes resolved. Gang members mediate disputes about whom a daughter is permitted to marry, or how much her family must pay in dowry money. Other times they sit silently in a family’s courtyard— a mass of hot pink fabric and black hair—to shame physically abusive husbands or fathers-in-law into treating women with respect.
Ten years into its existence, the gang has an impressive four hundred thousand members across India. Their fame has spread around the world, with chapters in France and Berlin and many foreign financial supporters.
* I am indebted to Dr. Atreyee Sen, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, for sharing with me her extensive research on vigilante feminism and the Gulabi Gang, and in particular her quotes from her interviews with Banwari Devi.