Books: Pink Is Power

August 15, 2013


Amana Fontanella-Khan,
the author of Pink Sari Revolution, A Tale of Women and Power in India,
wrote an op-ed piece earlier this year for The New York Times in
response to the gang rape and murder of a young female student in Dehli in
December of 2012, “a case that drew more attention to the state of women in
India than any event in recent history.” It was a horrible case, one still
fresh in the minds of many around the world. This
op-ed carries great significance because it introduces you to many women who
are actively working to create gender equality in India, to prevent such acts
of rape and abuse and to educate people on detrimental actions that inhibit the
betterment of women in society. One of the activists/educators/women we quickly
meet is Sampat Pal, the powerhouse behind the Pink Gang.

Pink Sari is Fontanella-Khan’s first book, but she is no
stranger to writing about gender issues. Just visit her blog and you
will read a slew of articles about women’s rights issues throughout the world.
Although Pink Sari is told within the cultural, political and economic
context of the Uttar Pradesh state of India -- a state heavily steeped with
corrupt politicians -- women from any part of the world will feel unsettled by
the extreme injustices described in the book. From sait, the “now
outlawed custom in which widows were expected to throw themselves onto the
blazing funerary pyres of their husbands,” to the familial and societal
disappointment in marrying out of love, the plight of the women in Pink Sari
continues to be a long road of struggle. In many ways, this book screams
“enough!” while spreading dialogue about gender inequality. As Sampt says,
“until you speak to the oppressed, you will never hear them.”

Pink Sari is a tangled odyssey towards justice for the
many women we meet in the book. While Fontanella-Khan’s narrative on gender
inequalities in India is compelling, it’s important to note that she seems to
be missing from the narrative. I actually like this, because I was able to
enter the mind and outlook of Sampat and Sheelu, the book’s leading
protagonists. Fontanella-Khan’s third-person narrative comes alive from
interviews she conducted with the individuals we meet, but also from numerous
articles and TV footage about the rape case central to the story. Unlike other
works of nonfiction focused on current affairs, you don’t just read quotations
highlighting the author’s analysis, you are guided through the story by the
author who is showing you what is happening.

Pink Sari reads like a documentary on paper --
Fontanella-Khan is highly successful in bringing you into the story, she brings
justice to Sampat, Sheelu and everyone else by letting the reader take in their
world. In Pink Sari, you feel the power, frustration, inspiration
and doubt of the individuals involved. However, through Fontanella-Khan’s
candid storytelling, you also feel how she is also frustrated, inspired and at
times doubtful. There are moments where the author appears simultaneously
critical of and frustrated for Sampat and her success. While Sampat is a
fighter, she also has a very large family of her own, who in some ways becomes
neglected while she works on her many cases. This is a predicament that
Fontanella-Khan describes quite well throughout the entire story, even though
she herself is woven into the many complicated facets of womanhood Sampat

           Photo of the author by James Fontanella-Khan

We learn much about
Sampat Pal, a social worker who was married when she was 12 years old and had
her first child at the age of 15. When we meet her she is washing her hair,
receiving news about a young woman -- Sheelu -- who was raped and accused of
theft. Upon learning her name and her dire situation, Sampat decides to take on
the case to help Sheelu. She doesn’t understand why the theft was perceived as
the more criminal action by the media. This would not be the first case that
Sampat fights for. Although the book does not indicate the exact number of
cases she has worked on, you know her influence stretches far and wide -- the
Pink Gang to date consists of 20,000 members and counting.

The mission of the Pink
Gang is to help “equality and justice for women, the lower castes, and the
poor.” Since the word “gang” carries such negative a connotation, I wondered
why the group members did not identify themselves as a “band”, or “troop”
instead? Sampat later explains: “We beat up a policeman and the media called us
a gang. Since then the name has stuck and it cannot be changed.” I chuckle at
this quote, but also shake my head at the stigma placed upon them. And while
she and her group are in a way criminalized through being labeled as a “gang”,
It’s easy to cheer for Sampat -- I admit I felt the urge to pull pink things
out of my closet (a color I typically stay away from, but in this context, pink
is power) to wear it while reading about her exhaustive efforts. She does good
work, and she knows it.

Sheelu, the young woman
central to the rape case in Pink Sari, represents the struggles and
inequalities that a countless number of women in India face. It's oftentimes
hard to get the facts of her case straight due to the many legal, political,
social and media layers involved -- but Fontanella-Khan succeeds in parsing out
those layers. In the seventh and perhaps most critical chapter, “The Sound of
the Bugle,” we learn that Sheelu’s husband Rajju -- with whom she eloped -- was
bought out to speak to the media against his wife, a politically charged move
that would “solidify her [Sheelu] reputation as a ‘loose’ woman.'” We learn more
about the connections bringing Sheelu and Dwivedi [the legislator who raped
her] together and the mortifying “finger test” used on women who have been
raped, but we also learn that the Pink Gang are on their way to protest. As
Sheelu sits in prison, the Pink Gang protests outside of the hospital where a
doctor, who did not give Sheelu a medical examination after her rape, is facing
the wrath of Sampat and the Pink Gang. In this scenario, the group’s show of
wrath becomes typical of an actual gang. The doctor claims she had no choice in
not administering the examination. Another complication.

It is of course no small
feat fighting for equality and justice. It’s hard to imagine that women could
live in a time, for example, where marrying for love is outlawed, a taboo
subject culturally ingrained in the fabric of everyday life in India. Outside
criticisms of these otherwise cultural norms placed upon “third world” or
“developing” societies are usually perceived as “backwards”, even “primitive”
-- a word developed by the “first world” that makes me cringe but I still hear
it used to describe cultures and societies that have ways of life other than
our own. Fontanella-Khan’s book shows us that India does have a long path to
pave in the creation of gender equality, but this has me reflecting on the
perception of women in our own society. Just when I think women in our country
are close to achieving social equality, I watch the news and see vitriolic debates
about what a woman’s role in society should be. I wonder, are we so
developed? Sampat shows us that equality and justice is possible, but not
without sacrifice and persistence -- not just in India, but everywhere.

Andrea Kim Taylor lives
in Seattle and works in the city’s Chinatown-International District.