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A string of brutal attacks against women in India has raised concerns about women’s rights in the fast developing nation. Indian bloggers ask whether it’s ever truly safe for women to venture outside, while Western nations urge female tourists traveling there to take great caution. As this debate plays out in India’s urban centers, out in the poverty-stricken region of Bundelkhand an unlikely grass roots movement for women’s rights, called the Pink Sari Gang, is taking matters into their own hands. We learn about the story of its leader, Sampat Pal, and explore how the group fits into the struggle for women’s rights in India.
- Amana Fontanella-Khan author, "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India"
Photo Gallery: Pink Sari Revolution
Pink Gang day celebration on Feb. 14, 2011, in Fatehpur, India. Photo credit Amana Fontanella-Khan.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India” by Amana Fontanella-Khan. Copyright 2013 by Amana Fontanella-Kkan. Reprinted here by permission of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRecent headlines in India tell of terrible crimes against women with stories ranging from brutal gang rape to outright murder. In urban centers like Mumbai and Delhi, thousands have joined marches to protest the violence and to pressure the Indian government to protect the rights of women. But just off the international radar in a region of Central India called Bundelkhand, a group of women are taking the fight for women's' rights into their own hands. The Pink Gang moves in a crowd all dressed in pink colored cloth, each woman wielding a large bamboo stick.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith thousands of members the gang protects women from abusive families, exposes corrupt officials and helps survivors of rape. It's an unlikely sight in some Indian communities where women never used to have a say. Here to discuss how it began and what it could mean for gender equality in all of India is Amana Fontanella-Khan. She is a journalist and author of a new book titled, "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India." Amana, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. AMANA FONTANELLA-KHANThank you.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation if you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850. What do you think is the state of women's rights in India today? You can also send email to email@example.com. Amana, Mumbai-based journalists recently asked the question, where is a woman safe in India? This coming after a grove of men beat and gang raped a photo journalist in Mumbai. That attack happened at 6:00 in the afternoon when the young woman was accompanied by a male co-worker. What do you think the recent attacks against women, which have caught international attention, say about the state of women's rights in India?
FONTANELLA-KHANWell, I don't think it reflects well at all on women's rights in India. But what I think is important to realize is that this has been going on for a very, very long time. We're just now speaking about it because, first of all, you have a rising middle class that's sort of making demands on the government and saying we're not going to accept this anymore. And you have sort of a boom in the media, post liberalization in the '90s. There was both a mushrooming of television stations and newspapers. And so they're covering these sort of issues a lot more than has ever been done before.
FONTANELLA-KHANSo we're just aware of the scale of the problem. And it's very problematic and I think it's just showing the sort of, you know, just how bad it is.
NNAMDIBut you're talking about a very large country that has once held -- had a woman as its prime minister, Indira Gandhi. These issues were not in the forefront during her time in office at all?
FONTANELLA-KHANWell, I think what's important to recognize about Indira Gandhi is that she -- while it's true that she was the leader of, you know, one of the largest democratic countries in the world, she was also, you know, a dynastic leader. She didn't get there on her own steam. Her father was the first prime minister of the country. And so it doesn't -- her success is not representative of the sort of, you know, emancipation of women at all.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd I don't think that women's rights was a priority for her. And, you know, we've seen time and time again in India, when you have women in power, this does not lead to, you know, a decrease in crimes against women. In fact, in the state of Uttar Pradesh where the Pink Gang is based, they had a female chief minister. And crimes against women spiked during that period. So even under Indira Gandhi it was still very, very bad.
NNAMDIIndeed, in a country where cast and class and gender divisions ten to be so dominant you make a very good point that people are elevated not necessarily on the basis of gender. And do not necessarily take gender considerations as one of their prime issues. And that what's happening here is something more at the grassroots level, the story of Pink Sari Gang, a group of women who are not waiting around for gender norms in India to change. But they're not protesting in Mumbai or Delhi. They're in the rural part or a rural part of Central India. How is this group restoring the rights of women to some of the communities there?
FONTANELLA-KHANSo what they're doing is they're trying to enforce laws that, you know, are not enforced by local police. The police does very little, if anything, to investigate crimes against women. If you're a rape survivor in the villages where the Pink Gang operates, you'll often just be sent away. In some cases, you may even experience another sexual assault at the police station.
FONTANELLA-KHANSo what the Pink Gang does is they offer support that is lacking in these kind of contacts. They will accompany women to the police station, they will follow them through the justice -- you know, the entire sort of cycle of, like, sort of the justice system. And to make sure that their cases get investigated thoroughly, that they're given the support that they need. And they also help get these women legal assistance. And, you know, they kind of keep up the battle until, you know, victims of assault gets justice.
NNAMDIOur guest is Amana Fontanella-Khan. She is a journalist and author of a new book titled "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India." We're inviting you to join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Have the recent violent attacks against women changed how you view India at all, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk about the gang's leader. She is a woman who seems to have achieved complete independence. You write that she spends quite a great deal of time away from her husband and her children. How did she manage to accomplish that?
FONTANELLA-KHANSo to understand, you know, how the sort of Pink Gang came about, you have to look at Sampat Pal. She really is an extraordinary person. And she's really -- you know, her journey started as a child. She organized her very first protest at the age of eight. She's always been single-minded, always been, you know, snatching her freedoms when people were denying them from her. And she lives apart from her husband. She's been, you know, living apart from him for several years now.
NNAMDIOf course, she was part of an arranged marriage when she was 11 or 12 years old?
FONTANELLA-KHANThat's right. She was married off at the age of 12, had their first of five children at 15. And typically what her -- you know, what life for a woman like Sampat would have been is just working as a sort of a servant for her in-laws for the rest of her life. But she very early on sort of rebelled. And at the age of 15 she forced her husband to move out of the family home into a separate house. And that is very unusual. Most of the time, you know, people live with their extended family for financial reasons.
FONTANELLA-KHANBut Sampat was very keen to sort of gain independence to have -- you know, to not be under their watch. So they moved out and then ever since, you know, she lived separately from her in-laws she just kind of moved further and further away from...
NNAMDIAnd for people who may want to know how she achieved this financial independence, she made sure she learned how to sew.
FONTANELLA-KHANThat's right. She taught herself how to sew. She was the first woman in her village to know how to do so. And she then stealthily sort of took money from the sort of like their family savings and went to buy a sewing machine. And that enabled her to make actually more money than her husband through providing sewing lessons and working as a seamstress. And her work as a sewing teacher helped her to come into contact with lots of different women. She was mobile, she was traveling more than your average woman would.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd she sort of attracted the attention of a local NGO that spotted that she had talent. And that's how she sort of started work, you know, as a social worker.
NNAMDIWell, she not only had talent and managed to achieve her own independence and was brought into work as a social worker, but I'm going to ask you to read from a section of the book at one point starting on page 28 where you write that Sampat has an inexplicable urge to step into other people's affairs. That seems to be a part of her makeup -- her genetic makeup, if you will. Please read that.
FONTANELLA-KHANJust who do you think you are, is a question that Sampat is used to hearing. At times she acts like she is running a small detective agency. On other occasions, she behaves like a police officer patrolling Bundelkhand. For all of her life Sampat's endless meddling has nettled many of those around her and left others slightly baffled. Sampat does not know exactly why she has persistently felt compelled to get involved in other people's business.
FONTANELLA-KHANIndeed, it represents one of the greatest mysteries that she has encountered in her life. She once declared that not even I understand Sampat Pal. She paused and then wrinkling her brow as she pondered the enigma that she represented to herself, came up with an idea. When I die the Indian government should look in my brain and find out how I have become like this. It was an earnest, if somewhat humorous suggestion. After a moment she added, they should look into my heart too. That could help.
NNAMDIThat's Amana Fontanella-Khan reading from her book "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India" about the woman who founded the Pink Gang, Sampat Pal. Again, you can call us at 800-433-8850. When Sampat takes the law into her own hands it often means fighting corruption among police and politicians, which cannot be welcome news to the people who benefit from corruption. What kind of resistance has Sampat and her Pink Gang movement faced from people in power?
FONTANELLA-KHANSo just one year after the gang was formed, the administration in Uttar Pradesh tried to besmirch her organization. They tried to claim that Sampat was a Naxalite which is a militant Maoist group in India. And they tried to shut down the organization. And it was obviously ridiculous to accuse Sampat of being a militant. And so, you know, she fought that case and won. But, you know, so that happened.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd she also was, you know, continuously being intimidated by the police. The police on one occasion tried to intimidate her landlord. Her landlord was obviously providing Sampat with a home and so the landlord was accused of murder. And this was a very deliberate attempt by the police to intimidate him and try to get him to kick Sampat out of the house, to kind of seize her from being able to operate.
FONTANELLA-KHANBut these days she's got a lot of support from people, from people in power, even among the local police. There are some people who obviously really resent her and what she's doing. But she does have friends within the police station who give her tip offs and who try to help her in her cause. So, you know, she's -- it's a mixed bag. She has a few enemies, but also friends in power.
NNAMDIIn the eight years since the Pink Gang was founded, Sampat Pal has brought in thousands of members. How willing are women in rural India to stand up against social norms and practices that may oppress women? How difficult has that been for her?
FONTANELLA-KHANWell, it definitely -- it doesn't come natural to most women, and I think that the reason why women join the Gang is because they're absolutely desperate. They've tried all other means. They've tried to go to the police, they've tried to go to their community elders, their family, their friends, and when they're turned away time and time again, you know, there comes a point where you're just so hopeless that you'll try anything. So Sampat does a lot to try to encourage women, you know, into sort of taking on responsibilities and roles that they've never taken before.
FONTANELLA-KHANIt does take a lot of training. Sampat also has to do a lot of work with the husbands trying to get their, you know, heads around their wives, you know, taking on these sort of -- these sort of roles. So, you know, husbands are often, you know, have long conversations with Sampat and she'll try to explain to them that, you know, that this benefits them as well to have their wives, you know, in the Gang.
NNAMDIAnd as we said earlier, she has brought in thousands of members. We're going to take short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you're looking to call, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the state of women's rights in India today? Do you think western nations like the U.S. share any of India's problems with gender equality? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Amana Fontanella-Khan. She is a journalist and author of a new book titled "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India." And I'd like to go directly to the phones, Amana, so if you would don your headphones so you can hear our callers on the phone, I'll start with Paulina in Vienna, Va. Paulina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULINAWell, I guess I always wanted to go to India. In fact, my husband's been there on business and, you know, I've known many people, obviously very nice people, very intelligent, very highly educated, but given what I've seen happen in India, not only with Indian women, but tourists as well, I wouldn't even think to go visit now. So it's certainly off my list.
NNAMDIWell, you should know the Wall Street Journal reports that the rate of growth of foreign tourists shrunk to 1.8 percent in the first four months of this year compared with nine percent over the same period last year. And I was surprised to read from the U.S. State Department, U.S. citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India. Western women, especially those of African descent, continue to reports incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. But Amana, this certainly seems to have adversely influenced the tourist industry on going to India.
FONTANELLA-KHANYes. Understandably so. I mean, nowadays, one of the first associations we make with India is violence against women because it seems that there is a new gang rape case emerging every, you know, every month or so. There's horrific incidents of -- or even abuse of children. And I completely, you know, I'm sympathetic to the caller about her desire not to go to India because you want to be accepted, and you want to be made to feel welcome and safe as a tourist, and I don't think that India can offer to you at the moment.
FONTANELLA-KHANI mean, I was there for four-and-a-half years, and on the whole I had a good time, but I think that was largely down to luck. I know so many people who, you know, personal friends of mine who have experienced, you know, really unpleasant situations and I think it's very important to be, you know, to be cautious when traveling to India.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paulina. Rape survivors in India can be ostracized from their communities if they report their cases to authorities, yet as the Mumbai photographer who was recently raped by several men rested in the hospital, she sent out a statement that said, rape is not the end of life. Do you think that how India views sexual violence is changing?
FONTANELLA-KHANI think there is a very gradual change, but we haven't turned a corner on rape. There's still, you know, if you listen to the kind of comments that politicians are making in the aftermath of the rape, it was just heartbreaking. I mean, you had, you know, the National Commission of Women, this is an organization -- state-run organization that is, you know, exists solely to support women in India, and they were blaming the victim for what had happened.
FONTANELLA-KHANThey were saying if only she had not gone out late. If only, you know, she had done this or done that. There's this idea that it's the woman's fault when this happens to her, and I think that the -- still the overwhelming majority of the population sort of holds those kinds of beliefs. So it's going to take a very long time indeed until that mindset is overturned.
NNAMDIThe sentencing for the five adults accused of last December's fatal gang rape is expected tomorrow. Ultimately, what do you think will be the significance of the court's decision there?
FONTANELLA-KHANWell, I think, you know, the country obviously is awaiting justice, and I think, you know, it will be served in this instance. But there are thousands and thousands of rape cases that, you know, don't ever go to the courts, and, you know, they just never make it to this point where there is a verdict. And so I would caution against being sort of overly optimistic about the significance of this one case. Obviously it's important because it's kind of the whole debate around rape in India has sort of centered on this one case, but the question well, going forward are things going to change and are other victims going to, you know, receive justice as well.
NNAMDIThe Pink Gang includes women from different classes in India's social hierarchy. Some come from India's lowest cast, referred to as the untouchables. Are members of the Pink Sari Gang being educated, if you will, to see beyond these social barriers envisioning a different world?
FONTANELLA-KHANSo the majority of women in the Pink Gang are from poor backgrounds. Many of them are illiterate, many of them are lower cast, and the Pink Gang tries -- so Sampat, the leader of the Pink Gang, tries very hard to instill a culture of equality and one that is free of cast-based prejudices. And so she is constantly, you know, speaking up about the importance of eliminating the cast discrimination. But it still -- it still creeps into the organization from time to time.
FONTANELLA-KHANThere have been some members who refuse to share food with lower cast women. They, you know, just are cautious not to become quote unquote "polluted" by their encounters with the lower casts, and obviously, this will take a long time to root out because it's so deeply entrenched.
NNAMDIIndeed, I was reading a statement from an anti-violence activist in India who said that India is a country built on the cast system. With due respect to those who work to make it an equal nation, I would say more than 75 percent still see things through that prism. And some have pointed out that women in lower casts face higher levels of sexual assault. Their stories get less attention than the cases involving middle-class women in larger cities. How do you think this long-standing social structure fits in to the struggle for women's rights?
FONTANELLA-KHANI think it's central because, first of all, when you have such a stratified, unequal society, it just -- it exacerbates violence against women because you have this idea that these -- that there's a whole class of women who are just fair game. I mean, there's a lot of upper cast men who think that they are entitled to rape the lower cast women because they are voiceless, they are powerless, and it's understood that in many part of the country, absolutely nothing will be done if a lower cast woman is attacked.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd so as long as, you know, as long it's, you know, you have this sort of inequality, it's a problem for women. This existence of the cast system also reflects itself in the question of marriage. Marriage is the primary institution that perpetuates the cast system. And so marriage is very tightly regulated, and, therefore, women's choices of who their spouses are, are tightly controlled. And I think that for the Pink Gang, one of their primary fights is for so-called love marriages, helping couples to choose their own partners and this is, you know, this is benefitting the elimination of cast system, and it's also something that benefits women.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. We'll go to Peggy in Olney, Md. Peggy, your turn.
PEGGYHi, Kojo. Interesting topic. It seems that the Indian men are a very angry group. I remember in the eighties, health care was not very widespread, but sonogram and abortion was so that we could rid ourselves of the worthless girl babies. Could it be that now they're missing their girl babies?
NNAMDII'd have to put that question to Amana Fontanella-Khan.
FONTANELLA-KHANYes. There are some parts of the country where the gender ratio is so skewed that there is a visible lack of women, and this has further perpetuated crimes against women. Men are now in competition for the few women that are in their villages, and they are kidnapping women from nearby provinces, they are, you know, raping them because they don't, you know, they don't have their own partners, so they will let out that sexual, you know, they will sort of -- they will attack women that they find on the streets.
FONTANELLA-KHANIt's -- yeah. No. It's -- in many parts of the country, especially in North India, it's, you know, just sort of -- it's very visible and it has perpetuated violence against women.
NNAMDIHere now is Terah (sp?) in Vienna, Va. Terah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERAHHi, Kojo. There is Terah, and I appreciate the topic. And my question revolves around the issue of sextortion, where even educated women feel the need to provide sex to get ahead in their careers, be it in politics or in business, and I would like your guest to address that issue.
FONTANELLA-KHANSo in -- I think that the majority of women in India are still not in the formal workforce. The majority of women in India are working on fields. They are in the agricultural sector. They are often lower cast women who are working for higher cast, upper-class landlords who, you know, who think that they have a right to, you know, to sexually abuse these women. And so it's not so much about sextortion and, you know, trying to get ahead in your career as much as just, you know, just plain rape.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd this is -- this kind of mentality obviously does seep into other parts of the country, you know, in work places and in urban centers, but primarily for working women in India, I think it's these sort of rural futile mindsets that are most dangerous.
NNAMDITerah, thank you very much for your call. Of course, we're in a culture in which the words couch casting are familiar when it comes to women getting roles in movies over time, and you mentioned earlier that the word we get about India mostly these days are about stories of sexual assault, and that obviously affects the tourist industry. But some accuse international media sources of highlighting sexual assault in India which ignoring cases of violence against women in their own countries. How do you think the struggles of Indian women compare to what women face in western nations like this one?
FONTANELLA-KHANWell, yeah. I think it's very interesting that around the time of the Delhi gang rape, when there was this huge international outcry at what had happened, you had the Steubenville case which was, you know, sort of in the media, and there's a lot of parallels that you can draw between those two cases. What I have found is very interesting was that I cover, you know, a vigilante organization that fights for women rights, and in the case of Steubenville you had these non-state actors, this online vigilante group anonymous which was behind, you know, helping to bring the details of the Steubenville case, particularly some of sort of egregious videos related to the case to the public's attention.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd so I think that there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn. Even here in D.C., I was reading a human rights watch report about the fact that there's many, many women who have been sexually assaulted, who have been raped, and who have approached the police in D.C., and there was one woman who said the experience at the police station was so traumatic that it took longer for her to get over that encounter at the police station than the actual rape.
FONTANELLA-KHANAnd so reading those accounts, to me, I hear definite echoes of the kind of statements I hear from women in India. It's obviously not as bad as in India, but I don't think we should, you know, that's at all...
NNAMDIAnd just like that, Amana Fontanella-Khan has stepped into the hornet's nest of a controversy over sexual assault and police conduct in the District of Columbia. I wish we had more time, because the police chief might be calling to defend her position on that issue, which she has been doing for awhile. Let's go now to Jay in Arlington, Va. Jay, you're on the air. We're running out of time, so please make your question or comment brief.
JAYThank you so much. Great show, great topic, great courage from the guest to commit to covering these issues. Question is about gender identity and sexuality. To what extent is the movement that you're covering in rural India addressing or ignoring the issues of lesbian and transgender people, especially as equality is further promoted, and choosing the person you want to love is further promoted. Speak to those issues, please.
FONTANELLA-KHANThat's a very interesting question indeed. I think in the west, in, you know, there's been a sort of alliance between feminists and the sort of gay rights movement, but I have not seen that in the Pink Gang. Currently they're sort of focusing exclusively on the rights of straight women, and there is a lack of debate in, you know, in rural India on the rights of gays and lesbians, and I think it's, you know, it's going to take a very long time until we get to a point where those issues are addressed.
FONTANELLA-KHANIn the cities, however, there has been a lot of progress. Just a few years ago, the -- sodomy was decriminalized, and so that was huge step forward, but I think the country still, you know, is, you know, has quite a long way to go.
NNAMDIJay, thank you very much for your call, and I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Amana Fontanella-Khan is a journalist and author of a new book. It's entitled "Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India." Amana Fontanella-Khan, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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