New Delhi: Seeds of rebellion were sown early in Sampat Pal’s mind when her parents refused to send her to school. But despite opposition, she learnt to read and write by watching through the boys’ classroom window without letting her parents know of it.
Daughter of a shepherd, Sampat told Gulf News, “I finally ended up going to school after I began writing and drawing on the walls of our home. My parents had given in very reluctantly, but they hatched another plan and decided to marry me off.”
Resident of village Bidausa, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, Sampat became a child bride in a region where child marriages are common. Having her first child at the age of 13, by the time she turned 20 Sampat had five children. But that did not deter her from being on her own.
She took up a job as a government health worker and added to the family income. Her husband had by then known that his wife was an independent minded woman and encouraged her in her pursuits.
Way ahead of times, Sampat loathed the village society that refused to educate girls, married them early and bartered them for money. She tried to fight the system but sensing that her hands were tied due to government’s mechanisms and she was unable to work for the welfare of women, Sampat soon became dissatisfied. She quit the job.
“I wanted to work for the people and began holding meetings. While networking with women I realised that they were ready to fight for a cause. The issues were many, including child marriages, dowry deaths, farm subsidies and misappropriation of government funds,” the crusader informed.
One day she saw a man beating his wife mercilessly. Sampat implored him to stop, but he refused. The following day, she returned with a group of women all carrying sticks. They beat him like he had beaten his wife. Lesson taught, they went back, but the incident created ripples in the village.
Sampat realised the power of togetherness and formed Gulabi Gang, an NGO to help women in distress and fight for their rights. She provided them pink (gulabi) sarees.
Responding to her preference for the colour, Sampat said, “Most colours are associated with political parties or religious groups. Pink has been my favourite and I believed in having a uniform, which removes any kind of disparity and creates discipline. It is also easy for people to recognise us.”
Women began to join Gulabi Gang. And Sampat made news in 2007 when she slapped a policeman on duty at the Attara police station. Incidentally, the fight this time was for a man against whom no report had been filed, but he was detained unlawfully. The Gulabi Gang had surrounded the police station and it led to a verbal duel between Sampat and the policeman.
The slap reverberated through several villages. And Sampat got both national and international fame. As the world learnt about the group of women in pink sarees dispensing their own brand of fair deal, villagers began flocking them to get justice in matters related to corruption and oppression.
Sampat’s time had come. She became a heroine and militated in favour of girls who wished to study and become independent. She challenged stereotypes and intervened where law refused to help and age-old traditions exploited women.
But she says, “It is not only about feminism. We fight for the oppressed — men, women and animals. We confront people who rape or raise their hands on women. People would kill their newborn on finding she was a girl. We dealt with them firmly.”
Sampat reasons, “Even now, in remote parts of the country, no one comes to the rescue of a woman in trouble. While the officials are generally anti-poor, the police is corrupt. We have taken it up on ourselves to fight it out and sometimes have to take the law in our hands.”
The modus operandi of the women in pink sarees is to confront the offenders and humiliate them in public. The gang makes the person feel ashamed so that the mistake is not repeated.
Sampat made it to The Guardian’s list of ‘Top 100 Women: Activists and Campaigners’. Several documentaries have been made on her and women all over the world appreciate her courage.
A puzzled Sampat says, “What surprises me is the fact that I am admired the most by women in Western countries. So many of them say they got inspired by me and have begun fighting for their rights at home and workplace after reading about me.”
She has been invited to international forums and has travelled to the US, France, Sweden and Italy.
For a woman, belonging to one of the poorest parts of the most populous state, it is reason enough to feel honoured. Banda has been male-dominated, with domestic violence a common occurrence. But Sampat has changed it. Men applaud her and some are now associated with Gulabi Gang.
A villager said, “We are poor and illiterate and have no support. We find that collectively the women are not afraid of breaking the rules and defend the weak. They have earned respect in villages far and wide and the men no more hesitate in approaching them. Many times Sampat and her group have forced policemen to register complaints against the offenders.”
Gulabi Gang has thousands of women under its banner. But Sampat refuses to associate with any political party or an NGO. She says, “All of them approach us with their own agenda. Some educated and affluent people even collect donations in our name, which never reaches us.”
Some day Sampat intends taking them to task.