Sunday, October 5, 2014

The power of a pink sari

Pink Sari Revolution, Amana Fontanella-Khan

The subtitle of this book is "A tale of women and power in India."  It is an account of a grass-roots women's movement, called the "Pink Gang" for the distinctive saris they wear, and their work on behalf of one woman's cause, as well as a portrait of its founder Sampat Dal.  Set in the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh, sometimes called "the Wild West of India," it is a window into life in the small farming communities where most of the population lives - almost 200 million people.

Many of these rural areas are, Amana Fontanella-Khan writes, places "where injustice against women, the lower castes, and the poor was an accepted part of life." Corruption among the police and judiciary, and in the state legislature, is wide-spread and well-known.  As a child growing up in the 1970s, Sampat Dal witnessed acts of violence and discrimination, and she took action herself against them when authorities wouldn't.  Married at age 12, to a man ten years older, she refused to accept the traditional role of a daughter-in-law, many of whom become virtual slaves to their mothers-in-law, saddled with all of the household work.  She convinced her husband to move out of his parents' house, a revolutionary act that gave her a measure of independence, even as the birth of five children over the next few years kept her tied to the home.  Having taught herself to sew, she was able to set up a small business for herself, giving her a financial independence all too rare.  She also joined a local NGO that ran schools and advocated for women, which taught her leadership skills and the power of women working together.  She had already rallied the women of her village against an abusive husband, attacking him one evening in the fields and telling him, "From now on, don't beat your wife."

In 2003, Sampat Dal started an NGO of her own, The Tribal Women Upliftment and Empowerment of Women Organization.  Under a government program, she and a co-worker, a man named Jai Prakah Shivare, started small self-help groups for women in the rural villages.  They gave talks on topics like personal finance and building a business, but also stressing the need for education, particularly for girls, as well as equality and justice for women and the lower castes.  She decided that the women in the groups needed a uniform, and she chose pink saris.  She organized her village groups into districts, under local commanders.  These commanders recruit new members, and they also bring cases to Sampat Dal's attention.  She may then call on the commanders to rally the women to action.  The Pink Gang has marched to police stations, government offices, and hospitals, armed only with the traditional bamboo staffs called laathis (often painted pink).  They have helped victims of rape, domestic violence, and unjust imprisonment, among other crimes.  Sampat Dal and her troops are part of a tradition in India called gherao,
whereby the public, driven by a sense that they have no traditional recourse to justice, and no power on their side except their sheer numbers and anger, surround an offending government establishment - an electricity department, a police station, a university, or in the case of labor disputes, an office or factory - to demand justice.  Gheraos sometimes lead to mob violence, a common occurence in the nation.
In this book, the author focuses on one particular gherao, on behalf of a young woman named Sheelu.  Much like Sampat Dal, she resented the restrictions placed on young women, particularly after her mother's death, when her father took her out of school to care for their house and her younger brothers.  Eventually she left home to live with a young man in a distant village.  Her father sought help in getting her back from his local state representative.  There are differing accounts of what happened after that, but Sheelu ended up in the legislator's house as a servant.  After he sexually assaulted her, she ran away.  The legislator accused her of stealing money and a rifle, and she was arrested and held for trial.  The police took no action when she accused her employer of rape, nor when her family said they had been threatened by armed men.  Sampat Dal did, however, and the intervention of the Pink Gang drew national attention to the case.

In the end, the author concludes, "There is no doubt that a strong Pink Gang is needed more than ever."  She continues,
[Life] in India is steadily worsening for women, who suffer the most when the police and judiciary systems are corrupted. Rape is now the fastest-growing crime in the country.  In the past four decades, the number of reported rapes has shot up by 792 percent. Conviction rates, however, are dropping.  A similar story is found in domestic violence, which has climbed by 30 percent in the same time period. Across the board, crimes against women have been increasing.

I found this book both troubling and inspiring, in about equal measure. I belong to a Houston chapter of Dining for Women, an international organization that provides grants to groups like Sampat Dal's NGO.  Each month we learn about women and girls denied basic human rights, including access to education, and the groups that are working to empower and support them.  The stories we hear often begin with one person stepping forward, like Sampat Dal, to bear witness and to call for change.  As she says, "In this world, at least one person has to fight. All over the world, someone comes forward who has courage."  This courage is changing individual lives, and the world around us.


  1. Lisa, I am constantly amazed at the interesting books you manage to find and read. You have me adding to my "to read" list weekly! Thank you.. I think;-)

  2. It's mutual, JoAnn - you added Florence Gordon to my list today ;)

  3. You are so much more open to diverse reading than me - I would like to try to read more broadly as I don't mind being made uncomfortable by books, but it is that first step I think that is so intimidating.

  4. vicki, I've been lucky in finding recommendations this year. Reading blog reviews (and challenges) has definitely helped me move a bit out of my comfort zone of Anglo-American lit and mysteries.

  5. What a fascinating review--I'm not sure that I'll read this book but I learned so much just reading your review of it. Well done.

    Dining for Women sounds like a great organization--good for you, getting involved and helping to make the world a better place.

  6. Jane, thank you. I am so inspired by the Dining for Women groups, and I always learn something (starting sometimes just with geography!)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!