Pink Sari Gang runs a revolution against rape

 Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India. Amana Fontanella-Khan. Norton. 284 pages. $26.95.
Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India. Amana Fontanella-Khan. Norton. 284 pages. $26.95.

A lot has been made of India’s modernization, but as the notorious 2012 gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi made clear, women have benefited little from this progress.

One statistic stands out: The increase in the number of rapes is greater than that of any other crime. Conviction rates are decreasing even as the number of reported rapes has risen in the past 40 years by an astonishing 792 percent.

One wonders how much worse those figures would be if not for the heroic efforts of the Pink Gang, the grassroots group that has fought violence against women since its inception in 2006. The group and its fearless founder, Sampat Pal, are at the heart of Amana Fontanella-Khan’s spirited new book, Pink Sari Revolution.

As Fontanella-Khan explains, Pal, who was born in 1958, has challenged authority since her youth. Girls weren’t allowed to attend the school in her village, so she taught herself to read, in part, by hiding behind a bush and peering at the blackboard of a boys’ outdoor class.

Fontanella-Khan, who writes regularly on women’s issues, paints a nuanced, humanizing portrait of a teenage-mother-turned-social-crusader who is loud, boastful and blessed with a wicked sense of humor.

The first protest Pal’s gang carried out was in her impoverished town of Atarra, in the northern, crime-ridden state of Uttar Pradesh. She and a handful of women demanding a better road blocked traffic by sowing seeds in the middle of the rutted path. “This is a road, what?” they shouted. “Looks like a field to me! Come on, let’s grow vegetables here, at least we can eat them!” The protest worked: The road was paved.

The gang’s popularity quickly surged; in just two years, 20,000 women joined. Gang members dress in pink sari uniforms — they chose the color because it didn’t have any political or religious associations — and Pal hits the streets in socks and flip-flops, carrying a bamboo stick. It’s not a menacing look, perhaps, but Indian authorities know by now not to underestimate Pal and her posse. Fontanella-Khan recounts one of Pal’s police station confrontations with an officer, a patronizing man who Pal says insulted her under his breath.

“Before he could finish, Sampat clasped a large folder she was holding in her hands and brought it crashing down on his head with a smack.” (One can’t help but feel that even Gandhi would have cheered her on from the sidelines.)

The challenges facing Indian women are formidable, but as one of the elderly members of the Pink Gang says, “Hope is a very big thing. Sampat gave it to us every time she came to the village.”

Sometimes that hope leads to results, as in the case of an 11-year-old mute girl who was raped by an elderly neighbor. The girl’s family, Fontanella-Khan writes, was “too poor to pay the police a bribe to investigate the crime,” and journalists wouldn’t cover the story. But once the Pink Gang got involved, the police put the man behind bars. “They are very scared of us,” a Pink Gang member says with a smirk. “They only do their job when they are threatened.”

John McMurtrie reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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