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Equality, Empowerment, and the Gulabi Gang

EqualityIn 2006, in Bundelkhand in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, Sampat Pal Devi, a mother with five children, started the Gulabi Gang to speak out against domestic violence and child marriage. Formerly a government health worker as well as a child bride herself, she saw a man beating his wife and intervened only to be beaten herself. She proceeded to return the next day with five women carrying bamboo lathi sticks and taught him an ancient lesson in humility.

Word spread and before long women were coming to Sampat in need of her help, at which point she started the sisterhood and adopted the pink, or “gulabi” in Hindi, uniform to symbolize their understated strength. From then on, the Gulabi Gang kept watch over their neighborhood, not unlike the Guardian Angels that started in New York in 1979 as a volunteer community watchdog.  Unlike that particular group, however, Sampat Pal Devi is hardcore and stories abound of her retaliating against corrupt police and extortionist government officials, occasionally with violence to the extent that her group is referred to less as activists protesting injustice but vigilantes.

In their district, they have worked to put an end to child marriages while arguing against the dowry marriage-custom and trying to spread literacy. They fight for an equal public distribution of grain and food supplies for people living in abject poverty and they support the rights of elderly widows, who often lack a birth certificate to prove their age to receive pension benefits. After 2008, the Gang was reported to be 20,000 strong with chapters across the world as far as Paris. More often than not, the Gulabi women are known to be a peaceful force working for female empowerment in their community, a strictly patriarchal caste-system of inequality that is strangled by the oppression of men, which is why the Gang uses public shame to instill their beliefs about justice, likely holding their lathi sticks when they do.

On March 7, and not coincidentally before International Women’s Day, Sampat Pal Devi was supposedly ousted from the group due to criticism that she was enjoying her popularity too much. But whether or not she is positioning herself in the popular culture of the world’s largest democratic nation for purposes of furthering her honorable sociopolitical standpoints, she is certainly not going to be removed from the organization that was built from the strength of her character.

Around the globe, women are not only being refused access to education and essential freedom, but rape has reached levels of epidemic proportions and across all of India.  37 percent of women have experienced abuse, not including the thousands of dowry deaths and bride burnings that take place every year as a result of segregation derived from their outmoded caste-system. With the Chinese drowning baby girls for decades, they are set in the coming generation to experience a major drought in marriage due to a simple lack of the opposite sex, and to even have a conversation about women’s rights in the Middle East at this point is futile.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sex trafficking is the most widespread type of slavery and reports estimate the extent of these crimes as millions of victims. As the third largest criminal enterprise on the planet and the fastest growing commodity for organized crime, it is considered an international problem but an estimated 293,000 Americans are at risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including youths who come from homes where they were abused or abandoned.  On average, the girls who are first turned into prostitutes are reported to be 12 to 14.

Anthropology offers evidence that tribal societies were predominantly egalitarian, and that patriarchy did not exist until after the Pleistocene era, following technological innovations such as agriculture and domestication. Around 4,000 BC, the geographical record suggests that climate change led to global famine across Arabia, the Sahara, and the Central Asian deserts, resulting in the adoption of warlike cultures in order to secure these food sources. There is an exaggerated amount of complacency in the western world that forgets how the Greeks treated women as second-class citizens and the Romans considered them to be property. There is a distorted concept of what it took to realize the world’s first true democracy in America, even when the women’s suffrage movement started in the 1700s and gained momentum through stalwart support from sacrifices made across centuries by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the sixth century AD, after the Justinian Plague severely decimated the populations of Mediterranean Romans and Greeks, the Germanic migration that was later followed by Scandinavians successfully spread the northernmost global culture to the rest of Europe. According to anthropologists, in the north women were treated respectfully. They could own property and get divorced and though their societies were patrifocal, meaning that men were the center of the social structure as a result of continuous territorial struggles, any female could rise through the ranks of male-dominated groups if she had what it took to compete. According to the psychology of Carl Jung, patriarchy is a weak form of masculinity that not only insults the sacred feminine but also masculinity in its fullness.

From Queens Elizabeth, Isabella, Catherine, and Victoria, all the way to modern Margaret Thatcher, western civilization from then forward showed trust in a woman’s acumen for politics. From Boudicca the Celt to Joan of Arc, there was never a problem with following women to war. Historically speaking though, advanced civilizations have all been patriarchal, believed to be a psychological reaction in those who first gain freedom trying to keep it for themselves, other than reductionist physical domination. Even the U.S. was disrespectfully patriarchal until the 1960s, and as a result there was little consideration about the reason for the prevalence of pair-bonding and equality of both sexes.

Abstract thought has proof going back almost 100,000 years through tribal cultures, and since civilization has only existed for the past 10,000, what humanity is in terms of hardwired natural programming is far from civilized. Pair-bonding was not created by man or woman, it was designed by nature as one of the many ways in which a species achieves lasting survival. In fact, mates imprint upon each other with such intensity that there are species of birds that remain completely loyal to their partner, even after death. This would seem unnatural because animals reach for immortality through procreation and are driven to do so through the same immutable programming, but the counter-reductionist argument would consider this a manifestation of unconditional love.

People want freedom and therefore play games of apologetics to excuse their behavior, but even in tribal cultures where polygamy existed, it was always about the wealth of alpha males and 80 percent of the people in those tribes still married one man with one woman. All major empires, except for those in the west allowed their emperors to have concubines, but out of political necessity, because what advanced European cultures experienced with respect for marriage was that after a King died they were often left without a rightful heir, or worse, sociopathic Caligulas who had no right to rule over the lives of others. In societies to the east, the purpose of a harem was to provide multiple opportunities for the royal bloodline to get it right for the sake of the empires they were responsible for ruling, not their own personal enjoyment of innumerable females at their feet.

According to archeologists, only in rare cases were tribal cultures patriarchal, and many warrior-cultures like the Aztecs respected women enough to designate Paradise as only for men who died in battle and women who died during childbirth. There is ample evidence for all variations, from the Hawaiians who went so far as to have separate huts for eating to divide the sexes, to polyandrous cultures in the Himalayas where one woman married numerous men because the territory was rugged enough to dictate their necessity for natural support to raise the following generation.

Historians list tribal customs across the world that have matrilineal kinship systems in which property and descent were passed through the female line, and women elders could even vote on hereditary male chiefs and occasionally depose them. Though matrifocal practices are widespread enough to be considered common, there has been no evidence that matriarchal societies ever existed, but the unburied fertility statues from the hunter-gatherer point of view would denote incomparable reverence. Being that most children died before the age of five and the average lifespan was less than 30, without understanding the scientific dynamic of procreation, simple logic would have led tribal men to comprehend that continued existence rested upon the fact that women kept creating more humans.

The momentum of history cannot be denied, because western women in the 1960s sought power that had been taken from them during the cultural transition from the northern tribes to this version of Greek Hellenism. Since men had all the power to give away, it was an appeal to morality and the inherent natural state of equality that urged them to abdicate what they never owned to begin with. Genetic memory from leaving the forest less than 1,500 years ago brought with it a background of respect for females that has since permeated the drive towards freedom that would not exist in the “civilized” world otherwise.

After the 14 Amendment in 1868, when the 19 amendment was ratified in 1920, America took the most vital step towards true democracy to carry over into the Civil Rights Movement apart from President Truman’s signature on Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that declared equal opportunity for people in the armed services. From there, the court case of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 finally resigned the issue legally by declaring that separation itself was inherently unequal, with obvious insinuations beyond race.

Perhaps it is time now to pick up sticks. If the Gulabi Gang in India is a sign that women have reached the limits of their patience, there must be hope for the rest of the world. The only example they need is Sampat Pal Devi, and real men who have the courage to find the same reverence for women that the Vikings did, facing the cold and brutal wilderness with appreciation for the warmth and light that females bring to it. Americans are adept at expressing opinions with voices loud enough to rattle the walls of global culture, so if it is time for society to awaken to itself. There should be limitless gratitude for the liberty provided from the sacrifice of the ancestors to declare in the loudest voice possible that even if the war of equality has not yet been won. For the sake of the suffering women and girls in foreign countries, the fight will not stop until every last cage has been broken, every chain removed, and every false limitation burned away for sacred women to once again take their rightful place.

Opinion By Elijah Stephens


Times of India
The Gulabi Gang

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