“The Pink Sari Revolution,” by newcomer Amana Fontanella-Khan, is the story of Indian women’s rights pioneer Sampat Devi Pal.
The book’s greatest strength is the raw charisma of the irrepressible, authoritarian, and mesmerizing Ms. Pal. Fontanella-Khan delivers her book in the “New Journalism” genre pioneered by Truman Capote, relating cold, hard facts with literary flair.
Pal was raised in a destitute household in Uttar Pradesh, India. Married at thirteen, Pal was denied an education because of her gender. She taught herself to sew to make pocket money, but her heart was elsewhere. Outraged by the routinely shocking treatment meted out to underprivileged Indian women, Pal founded the Pink Gang to bring vigilante justice to India’s desperately corrupt justice system. On a less dramatic level, the Gang attempts to create microeconomic opportunity and enhance educational systems.
The Pink Gang takes its name from the pink sari it gives to all its recruits. The Gang now boasts 20,000 members. The women of the Pink Gang employ varied tools to achieve their ends. They shame wrongdoers in the media, stage riots, and occasionally use physical violence to goad public officials into addressing both the economic and physical exploitation of women in India.
Pal essentially abandons her family to run the Pink Gang. She lives in an office with her consigliore Babu, himself a married man. Pal insists they live together only to save money and focus on the business of the Pink Gang. Theirs is a culturally unusual relationship regarding which Pal has largely staved off malicious gossip.
The book uses as its jumping off point one particular case in which Pal inserts herself. After a destitute girl, Sheelu, is accused of theft by her powerful employer, Pal and the Gang take up her cause. They unearth evidence showing Sheelu’s employer had raped her, dispatched his goondas to torture and threaten her father and family, and bribed the local police to cover up his crime.
Pal threatens the local officials, enlists sympathetic allies in the media to tell Sheelu’s story, and makes dramatic courthouse appearances to highlight Sheelu’s plight. Ultimately, Pal’s intervention brings Sheelu to the attention of Rahul Gandhi, to whom the awestruck girl insists on serving two glasses of milk when he visits her home.
As Sheelu’s case winds its way through India’s byzantine justice system, Pal contends with perpetual death threats, routine attempts to buy her silence, and backstabbing Gang members. National headlines and an audience with Sonia Gandhi cause Pal to consider a political career.
Pal has made her mark. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in politics, she has already given voice to a cause that desperately needs to emerge from the shadows. The more fascinating question is how the politicians and other establishment leaders of India will respond to what has become a problem of catastrophic proportions.
This book could not have come at a more opportune time. Fontanella-Khan notes that rape is now the fastest growing crime in India. On an almost weekly basis, fresh scandals emerge exposing the toxic environment women in India must navigate. The news of these scandals has rightly affected India’s burgeoning tourism industry, reputation as a responsible business partner, and cultural image in the world. Outrage is the only appropriate response to the chilling sexual exploitation of children, the daily harassment of Indian women, and the increasingly depraved violence against both Indian and foreign women in India.
Politicians have responded with lukewarm measures.
For example, after the horrific gang rape of a woman in New Delhi who ultimately died of her injuries, Parliament enacted a law that strengthened some penalties for sexual violence, but left intact provisions virtually assuring that soldiers and other public officials would go unpunished for crimes they commit while wearing the uniform. The idea that any public servant is above the law, indeed, could hide behind his badge to escape the consequences of criminal conduct, is unworthy of the world’s largest democracy.
Other egregious laws remain on the books. Courts still allow the introduction of evidence of the alleged character of a rape victim. As laboriously described in this book, these repressive laws allow doctors to use “finger tests” to opine on the virtue of a woman. These notoriously unreliable tests have no basis in science or law. India should join the modern world in enacting rape shield laws which focus on trying assailants, rather than blaming victims of crimes for which there is no excuse.
During an interview with the Asian American Press, Fontanella-Khan said, “The injustice is staggering. It blows you away. . . . I wish the book would inspire women to be victorious and strong in spirit, and not be overwhelmed by it.”
If India is to rise to its full potential as a leading global power, it cannot leave open to oppression half its population. One hopes “Pink Sari Revolution” may encourage many more Indian women, and men, to take a stand for the full liberation of women in India.