An ordinary woman living in a village in northern India saw a man mercilessly beating his wife. Her attempts to intervene backfired and she too ended up with a beating. The next day she returned with a lathi (a bamboo stick) and five other women and gave the man a beating just like the one he had given his wife. News spread and this ordinary woman, Sampat Pal Devi, was hailed as a warrior and her group was soon known as the Gulabi Gang or the Pink Gang. Devi specifically chose the color pink to signify "womanhood and understated strength."
"Women are always treated like dirt by men, especially in rural villages, where most women are illiterate and have no knowledge about their rights," she told DW.
Today, Sampat Pal Devi's group has over 300,000 members spread across the villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh. She has opened schools and training centers for women where they learn to sew, weave baskets, and other skills that can help them make money and become independent.
Warriors in pink saris
Sampat herself was denied education and was married off at the age of 13. Having borne her first child at a tender age, she suffered abuse at the hand of her in-laws, who were unrelenting until she later gave birth to a boy. In the male-dominated Indian society, Sampat believes that giving women an option to earn a livelihood is just the first step. "Women need to be educated and made aware of their rights so they can fight back abusive husbands who try to chain them to their household chores, stripping them away of all freedom."
On a daily basis Sampat meets young women who were forcibly wed to older men, suffer domestic violence and are harassed for dowry. "These men they think too much of themselves; you have to show them where they stand."
While the members of the gang are trained to use bamboo sticks and are prepared to use them on tyrannical men, Sampat says that the media has wrongly portrayed her group as a bunch of women who do nothing else but beat up on men just for fun. "I don't believe in violence, but a woman needs to protect herself. The stick is self-defense."
Beyond the household, the Pink Gang has been able to put pressure on corrupt government officials by exposing illegal activities such as siphoning off wheat and rice allotted to the poor of the village.
Inspiration for film
In a deeply patriarchial part of the world controlled by feudal landlords, Sampat and her warriors are fighting to bring about a change in society. Her story inspired Nishtha Jain, a documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai. Jain herself is from Bundelkhand, a region in central India, which is also the birthplace of the gang. The story was close to Jain who spent several years making the film Gulabi Gang - A Documentary, which was recently screened at the 14th New York Indian Film Festival. The documentary follows women in the rural landscape of Uttar Pradesh narrating their tales of woe.
Jain deeply admires Sampat and has been inspired by her film's protagonist and her feminism. "The film was an exercise in telling a nuanced story, an attempt not to romanticize, simplify or look for resolution within the framework of the film," she told DW.
Her film was received very well in India, though she said it might not resonate as well with audiences in the West for cultural reasons. There is, for example, a scene in the film which shows Sampat advising a woman who had been beaten by her husband to go back home. Sampat believes a woman's rightful place is her husband's home.
"What other options does a woman have once her husband kicks her out? My aim is not to uproot women from the society they live in, but ensure them a place of dignity in their own household," Sampat explains.
Larger than life role model
Sampat's group has also inspired a Bollywood film titled Gulaab Gang. Although the film is a work of fiction and is a commercial product with sharp dialogues and larger-than-life scenes with unimaginable fighting sequences, it draws upon Sampat's struggle.
The character of Sampat is played by Madhuri Dixit who stubbornly and courageously challenges corrupt officials.
The corrupt politician is played by Juhi Chawla, a veteran actress who tries to coax Rajjo (played by Madhuri Dixit) into supporting her in the coming elections. Like Sampat, Rajjo and her pink gang fight against corrupt officials and abusive husbands. They become vigilantes and bring about a change in the society around them.
"In a way, our film salutes these women," Juhi Chawla told DW. "They have been very brave, they have very little for themselves but they stand up for others, and help other people, and that is a big, brave thing to do. With very few resources, they stand up and fight against injustice."