Vigilante Justice and Gender-Based Violence: The Gulabi Gang

Over the past few weeks, India has witnessed numerous instances of sexual assault, including incidents involving a toddler, a four year old, and a female rickshaw driver. The country also saw the the conviction of six men accused raping a Swiss tourist. These crimes are indicative of law enforcement's inability to effectively deter sexual assault, and make one wonder whether vigilante justice, like that famously practiced by the Gulabi Gang, is a viable alternative to state justice.

The Gulabi Gang is movement of thousands of women in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in which the members deal with assaults, child marriages, domestic violence, and general discrimination by threatening to use collective force against perpetrators. It started when Sampat Pal Devi witnessed a domestic abuse incident, and was beaten when she tried to intervene. She retaliated by gathering a group of women, who returned to beat the man in question with bamboo sticks. That single act of defiance inspired several women to ask Sampat Pal to deliver her unique brand of justice in their homes and villages as well. The movement gradually gathered strength and numbers, and was named the Gulabi Gang (or 'Pink Gang') because of the group's striking uniforms: bright pink saris. 

The Gulabi Gang hasn't only gained popularity among the women of Uttar Pradesh. The group has been documented extensively by international media organizations, and was the subject of an award winning documentary in 2012. In interviews, Sampat Pal has emphasized that the Gulabi Gang is, "not a gang in the usual sense of the term. We are a gang for justice."

Which brings us to the question of whether vigilante justice and the use of force are effective solutions in this cultural context. Most villages in Uttar Pradesh are organized around a rigid patriarchy. Child marriage, dowries, domestic abuse, female infanticide, and marital rape are commonplace, despite the laws prohibiting them. Legal sanctions have proved ineffective because the region's law enforcement system is a product and component of the same patriarchal system that victimizes women. On one of her missions for Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal tried to register a complaint at a police station, and was greeted with both physical and verbal abuse. She responded by attacking the policeman in question with her bamboo stick. 

The use of force has been empowering for a group of largely uneducated women who have few other outlets for their frustration. The Gulabi Gang doesn't just physically threaten masculine aggressors, but publicly shames criminals for their behavior. We need to appreciate the deterrent value of the public shaming of dominant men by victimised women who have taken to arms, even if those arms are just a bunch of bamboo sticks.

Wives are too often treated as child-bearing domestic labor that can be abused on a whim, and daughters as burdens to be disposed of into husbands' homes. Women are made to suffer and sacrifice for the interests of the men in their family. The Gulabi Gang's brand of justice redefines these centuries-old gender roles and beliefs, and provides an empowered, equalizing force that demands to be acknowledged and respected. The Gulabi Gang has proved that physical strength, aggression, and the refusal to yield against an oppressive culture can significantly change the social fabric of Uttar Pradesh. The group is continuing to grow.

Although the Gulabi Gang also has non-violent initiatives, such as fostering cottage industries that provide women with alternative methods of employment and financial independence, the identity of the group is largely derived from the popular image of pink-clad, stick-brandishing vigilantes. However, the hype surrounding the Gulbai Gang makes it is easy to forget that their vigilante model was necessitated by the complete failure of government institutions. The government has a mandate to protect women. Reliance on this sort of vigilante justice may give rise to additional gangs, as other oppressed social groups take up arms, too. What Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang have achieved admirable results, but the need behind the group's existence represents a failure of the government of the world's largest democracy.