Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vigilante Justice: Gulabi Gang

“In rural India, a group of women calling themselves the Gulabi Gang are using vigilante justice to make their voices heard in a man’s world,” reads the subtitle to the “Angry in Pink” article in Bust’s June/July 2009 issue (Chopra, 2009, p.59). Anuj Chopra frames women’s rights in a way that both dismantles and supports ‘Western’ popular culture’s perception of the ‘3rd world.’ This article explains how only extreme mobilization can liberate these Indian women from the thresholds of patriarchy and oppression. She frames individual identity, political structures and collective rights in ways that bring attention to a grassroots movement against submissiveness. However, the issue of framing human rights is a difficult one, and with the benefits of western media attention also come potential negative consequences if women’s human rights are not framed accurately.
The Gulabi Gang is spear-headed by 46-year-old, Sampat Pal who aims to “confront those who continuously commit grave social injustices against the poor, particularly women” (Chopra, 2009, p.61). In the village of Banda, India, the group of women wear pink saris as they confront patriarchy and stand up against abusive husbands, rapists and an unlawful government that does not value women’s rights. Considering that Bust magazine has a conscious third-wave feminist audience, the framing of women’s rights in India has a somewhat well-informed understanding of the human rights discourse in comparison to other popular Western publications. However, since 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ the West has repeatedly portrayed Islamic women as oppressed and without individual agency (Freedman, 2007, p.39). While the article does reach out and contact the grassroots movement first hand, readers must still be conscious that the portrayal of this article is through a Western lens which has various consequences.

Firstly, framing identity and first and second generation rights (civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights) brings up the debate between the universalist/cultural relativist dichotomy (Steans, 2007). Radical universalism states that values should be universally applied without consideration of cultural differences. Strong relativism is the theory that human rights are principally determined by culturally specific circumstances. Bust frames Indian women’s human rights from a weak relativist stance. While the article does learn toward universal human rights as a basis to legitimize holding government bodies accountable, they are weak relativists because they endorse the cultural modification that takes place in order to implement those rights. For example, they do not publically disapprove the use of violence (lathi fighting) as a way for women to make a point and ultimately create change (Chopra, 2009). Lathis are a traditional, cultural weapon and if men can use them against women, women can also use them to stand up for themselves. The risk with universalism is that it can be portrayed as emphasizing Western homogeny; however, Bust does not take an overtly Westernized position, instead they lay out the unique methods that work for these women in their villages (Steans, 2007).

A point of contention in the West and among West the gender inequality involved in women wearing a headscarf...” and they “ignore many other social and economic inequalities present...” (Freedman, 2007, p.43). Western media outlets, including newspapers, magazines and broadcasting, are guilty of portraying Eastern women to be in need of ‘saving.’ Bust frames women’s rights as a liberty that the Gulabi Gang are perfectly capable of achieving in India. Furthermore, while they do not veil their faces, they do use the traditional ‘oppressive’ sari as a political tool and uniform to show solidarity for women’s rights and to the other members Gulabi Gern media is that all women who veil are oppressed. While this may not always be true, Bust does print that “People often spout nonsense about the need to lock a woman in a veil. The more you suffer, silently, I realized the more your oppressor will oppress you” (Chopra, 2009, p.62). By printing this quote and not providing any exposition about the intersectional complexities surrounding veiling, Bust contributes to this notion that Western women need to liberate the ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’ women of the East (Kapur, 2005, p.99). By considering intersecting identities to understand the complexities of the individual, would be a more accurate way of understanding motivations for or against wearing headscarves of any type. Sometimes Western media focuses too much “onang. As popular media depicts the removal of the burqa as a symbol of liberation, in fact this “emancipation mission of the Western alliance” actually hindered the progress of RAWA women in Afghanistan (Freedman, 2007, p.37). No longer could they anonymously organize and protest, their faces were exposed and the new level of accountability turned out to be quite dangerous. Both the Gulabi Gang and RAWA use their traditional dress as a political tool to combat injustice.
“Women in the post-colonial world are portrayed as victims of their culture which reinforces stereotyped and racist representations of that culture and privileges the culture of the West” (Kapur, 2007, p.99). This article illustrates many ways in which women and girl children are victimized in India: child marriages, dowry issues and domestic abuse from alcoholic husbands (Chopra, 2009). Bust does, however, exercise more responsible journalism because instead of talking about these women from a top-down understanding, they humanize human rights injustices by talking to real women, like Pal and Devi, who have experienced gender violence and caste discrimination first hand.

This article takes a more critical approach in framing bureaucratic structures and NGOs in India. Pal explains that she no longer works closely with NGOs to combat ‘social ills’ because “dealing with the red tape surrounding bureaucratic women’s-aid program in India made her efforts slow and ineffective” (Chopra, 2009, p.61). The issue of ‘NGOization’ is quite controversial among many grassroots movements. When NGOs start taking money from the government or more other bureaucratic organizations, they face compromising their approach to issues because more organizations have invested in their actions and want control. This can lead NGOs to become caught up in the politics surrounding an issue and steer away from fixing the problems. The article inspires Westerners to revaluate the bureaucratic political and non-governmental organizations in their sphere that impact their lives. Bust attempts to frame bureaucratic structures as counter-productive in many ways by only mentioning NGOs in a negative context, what they did not investigate was the fact that the Gulabi Gang does receive the majority of their funding from other NGOs and government organizations as stated in their constitution (Gulabi Constitution, 2008). Instead of emphasizing the need for transnational funds to rescue these girls from subservience, Pal emphasizes the importance of education, grassroots organizations and direct action.
Furthermore, the article frames the importance of a legal rights discourse to succeed in implementing human rights and correcting corruption in India. Pal states that if a country is corrupted, than it cannot rise to recognize human rights and protect its people. She is framed as an extremist who is not afraid exercise physical violence in order to ensure human rights are protected. Pal “[challenges] the male elites that dominate the law courts” by taking direct action against authority figures (Steans, 2007, p.21). The two examples of shaming the officials involved in the food distribution and road building controversies, show how women use their creativity and intellect to empower all marginalized people to stand up for themselves. Even going so far to take physical action against abusers which could seem ridiculous to Western pacifists, but as Pal explains, “To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force” (Chopra, 2009, p.63). Bust does not just frame women as victims, but as women with agency who have the strength to stand up to corruption and demand their rights. Bust explains the Gulabi Gang’s motivation for partaking in physical confrontations with bureaucracies.
Shaming government officials is one way of ensuring human rights charters and conventions are upheld. It has worked to some extent for NGOs trying to uphold CEDAW and it works for the Gulabi Gang who have “even goaded apathetic government officials into action by publically shaming them” (Chopra, 2009, p.61). Bust frames group and collective rights as achievable with mobilization and cohesion among the sari-clad activists who show up when they are needed to organize. “Western-dominated groups and NGOs [are] accused of engaging in a divisive politics of ‘othering’ in relation to non-western women and this contributes to the disempowerment of women in developing countries” (Steans, 2007, p. 15). Often, when there is an emphasis on achieving collective rights, such as women’s human rights, the people within that group run the risk of having their individual needs overlooked. However, Bust publishes the stories of individual women facing different adversities to demonstrate how Pal and the Gulabi Gang understand the importance of fighting for each woman’s needs. The smaller struggles fighting for individual women has allowed for improvement among the collective group of women which provides the basis for true social change in both the domestic and public spheres. By bringing domestic struggles, such as marital rape, into the public sphere, it makes room for a discourse around the matter and pressure for social reform and human rights implementation. Instead of applying a global mentality to a small local village, they take the issues facing that village and use the global community’s gaze to pressure reform.
While Bust may try a non-bias, journalistic stance in the article, no article is completely unbiased. Publishers play a large role in framing human rights because they moderate what is expressed and how something becomes known or remains unknown. If anything, their weak relativist stance dismantles Western homogeny and creates a sense of community by demonstrating the different ways of reaching universal goals of equality and social justice. Because Bust readers are assumed to have at least a basic understanding of women’s injustices, if anything, Bust frames this article in a way that makes the Gulabi Gang look even more appealing to social activists and theorists. However, especially with recent media exposure, the Gulabi Gang has to ensure that they do not form their own elitist bureaucracy under Sampat Pal.
Nonetheless, “...Muslim women demonstrated that justice is not a uniquely Western invention but also has roots in non-Western societies and indeed in Islam which is often scrutinized and criticized in the Western media for legitimizing the ill-treatment of women” (Bovarnick, 2007, p.71). The Gulabi Gang article in Bust is an example of how women rising up, demanding their rights and in doing so, rising an entire nation. Although Pal is trying to avoid involvement in politics, her work on behalf of lower castes and women will not cease until the women and poor are no longer treated like second-rate citizens (Chopra, 2009). Pal was just an ordinary woman who refused to stand at the edge of society any longer. She passionately educates women to reclaim their voices and use the Gulabi Gang coalition to stand up against corrupt government policies thus demonstrating the power of grassroots change. Furthermore, Bust teaches readers that instead of victimizing and sweeping in to save women in the East, to celebrate and support existing rallying point organizations, such as the Gulabi Gang.

Bovarnick, Silvie (2007). “Universal Human Rights and non-Western Normative Systems: A Comparative Analysis of Violence Against Women in Mexico and Pakistan.” Review of International Studies, 33: 59-74.
Chopra, Anuj. (2009, June/July). Angry in pink. Bust, 57, 58-63.
Freedman, Jane (2007). “Women, Islam and Rights in Europe: Beyond a Universalist/Culturalist Dichotomy.” Review of International Studies, 33: 29-44.
Gulabi Constitution. (2008). Retrieved October 9, 2009, from
Kapur, Ratna “The Tradedy of Victimization Rhetoric” from Kapur, Ratna (2005). Erotic Justice: Law and the Politics of Postcolonialism. London: Glasshouse Press, pages 95- 100.
Steans, Jill (2007). “Debating Women‟s Human Rights as a Universal Feminist Project: Defending Women‟s Human Rights as a Political Tool.” Review of International Studies, 33: 11-27

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