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Sampat Pal: India's "messiah for women" stands up for justice

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 5 Apr 2011 01:18 GMT
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LONDON (TrustLaw) - "Each story is worse than the last. Women have nothing but their tears," says Sampat Pal.

She should know. In Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest states and its most populous, Pal has become famous for defending the women who beat a path to her door demanding justice from cruel in-laws and violent husbands.

Accompanied by her female supporters—all clad in magenta pink--Pal, 53, stands up to men, publicly proclaiming their abuses to shame them, threatening them with the police and jail. Backed by her Gulabi Gang (gulabi is pink in Hindi), Pal has been known to have given "rogues" a sound thrashing with a lathi or bamboo stick.

She is all the more unusual for being a Dalit, or "untouchable", the bottom of the pile in the Hindu caste system.

"Pink Saris," the latest offering from award-winning British documentary maker Kim Longinotto, trails Pal and her attempt to pierce the patriarchal attitudes that have, for centuries, kept women in many parts of India downtrodden and silent.

The film opens with shots of cows ambling across emerald-green fields and children walking to school along dusty, dirt roads as brightly dressed women glide by.

But the idyllic rural scene belies the oppressiveness of village life that unfolds -- young girls forced into marriage, wives routinely beaten by husbands or raped by father-in-laws. Women must ask permission from fathers and husbands to step out of the home. Many are still illiterate. Talk of suicide is common.

Despite an array of legislation passed to protect the rights of women, laws against child marriages and dowry payments are rarely enforced in India.

The first to seek Pal's help in the film is Rekha, a mournful Dalit girl who speaks, eyes lowered, of being made pregnant by a boy from a higher caste, who abandons her. She wants him to do the honourable thing and marry her. We are told she must get married because unmarried girls who get pregnant are often killed by their own families.

The only time a smile brightens Rekha's face is when she asks the filmmakers to take her away with them; it is her wedding day but going to London seems preferable.

Then there is Renu, another Dalit girl, who had an arranged marriage and wants to divorce her husband to marry the boy she is now in love with, and Rampyari, whose father-in-law forces himself on her while her husband works in the city.

Niranjan, Pal's own niece, whose arms and legs are scarred from the beatings she receives from her husband and his parents, complains that they allowed her baby girl to die.


For Longinotto, who has documented the lives of women in Cameroon, Iran, Kenya, Japan and South Africa in previous films, the hardest place to be female was "undoubtedly" rural India.

"Amongst a lot of these young women there was a sense of hopelessness. There's a cult of death so they thought that death-- killing themselves--was the only way out," she told TrustLaw in a recent interview.

Throughout the film, there is talk of girls throwing themselves under a train, hanging or poisoning themselves.

Longinotto traced their hardship to many things: "It's education, it's caste, it's tradition, it's things that are passed down like a girl baby's a bad thing, a girl's not worth as much as a boy."

Little wonder that so many women turn to Pal. Loud, fearless and tough, she is not one to wilt in a confrontation.

"I think they want to be like her and I think they admire her," Longinotto said. "I think she's their last resort ...she's the last thing between them and death really."

In one memorable scene, Rekha's future father-in-law boasts that he is a prophet with special powers. With a shake of her head, Pal challenges him to prove it. "If you have the power to turn me to dust ... do it," she shouts.

He is forced to admit he can't, his humiliation complete. "You don't scare me," she tells him.

That, according to Longinotto, is what's so brilliant about Pal: "She pits herself against tradition and superstition."

In another scene, Pal encourages Rampyari to speak of her misery before her mother-in-law with the neighbours present to bear witness. Emboldened by Pal's presence, Rampyari recounts in a breathless monologue how her in-laws don't want her, how her mother-in-law stuffed chillies in her, how she refused her father-in-law's advances but the old woman brought him to her anyway.

Off-camera, a male voice is heard saying the old woman will go to prison.

"That's her (Pal's) big strength, that's what I admire about her. She creates a kind of street theatre where taboo subjects, things that are secret things, that are private -- and those are the most dangerous and powerful things -- when they're out in the open they lose their power," Longinotto says.

The acclaimed filmmaker has tended to focus her lens on women who take matters into their own hands.

For example, in "The Day I Will Never Forget" (2002), a group of runaway Kenyan girls go to court to stop their parents from forcing them to undergo female genital cutting, while "Sisters in Law" the winner of the Prix Art et Essai at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of a female state prosecutor and court president who help women fight cases of abuse in Cameroon.

Longinotto she "doesn't like films about victims or films where everything's hopeless" and was drawn to Pal's story because she represents change.

“Here's this woman in India who's tapped into this incredible longing for change. It's not a coincidence that she's got 20,000 women now who are supporting her, who obviously are saying this is enough, now is the time for change," she says.


For all Pal's strengths, the last resort for these powerless women is flawed and human too, and the camera captures it all -- the bursts of arrogance, the hectoring, the voice that thunders louder than anyone else's.

She refers to herself in the third person, claims to be more powerful than the police, calls herself "the Messiah for women", bosses her Gulabi Gang around and tells Renu, who has nowhere to go, that people are only loved for their money.

Yet her overbearing manner suggests a wounded core.

"We very quickly realised that Sampat was caught in her own tragedy," Longinotto said. "She's never had love and ... if you don't have love in your childhood you have to learn to love. It's very hard to truly care about other people if nobody has ever cared about you. We have to be generous with Sampat and see what an amazing woman she is with such a difficult background."

Married off at nine, Pal went to live with her husband at the age of 12, and by 15 she had the first of five children. "If I had known, I'd never have let it happen," she says at one point. "If I got married now, I'd choose my own husband or I wouldn't get married at all."

Forced out of her village for defying her in-laws, Pal eventually left her husband. For the past four years, she has lived with Babuji, an educated man from the highest Brahmin caste, while her husband lives nearby with their 12 grandchildren. In a reversal of roles, she tells him if he needs food or money, that she is the provider.

Against the odds Pal built up her Gulabi Gang, generated media attention around it, and now enjoys fame but "Pink Saris" is as much about how ambition and power taint as it is about the girls.

"I think if you watch the film, you see very clearly, the Gulabi Gang needs to change as well, it needs to evolve, it needs to become more democratic if it's going to be a powerful force," Longinotto says. "It can't just be a photo opportunity for Sampat."

In the end, Pal gets Rekha married and Renu divorced, she confronts Rampyari's in-laws but sends Niranjan back to her abusive husband. When Renu's higher caste boyfriend bows to pressure not to marry her for fear it will ruin his family it's a reminder of what the Gulabi Gang is up against, although being jilted may have been the best thing to have happened to Renu.

Living with Pal, Renu learns to read and ends by saying she wants "to be someone".

"She's taught herself to read, she's transformed herself in three months," Longinotto says. "I found that so inspiring. If these girls were given so little, with so little they can transform themselves. It's all there waiting to happen."

The film, shown twice in India, struck a chord with Arab audiences, winning best documentary at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year. It was recently screened in Syria to a warm reception, Longinotto says.

 "The audience loved it and they kept saying 'this is like my sister'," Longinotto says. "You obviously want them (films) to be important in their own countries in some way but it's lovely when you see it cross over."



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