Pink Saris: Flouting Taboos to Defend Women

For her latest film,  ”Pink Saris”   (2010), British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto spent 10 weeks in rural India. There, she followed Sampat Devi Pal, the feisty founder of the Gulabi Gang, a women’s activist group which takes its name from the color of their bright pink, or ‘gulabi,’ saris.
After escaping a marriage she was forced into at an early age, Ms. Pal started helping other women in rural areas stand up for their rights and dignity too. She has recruited many of those she helped and in recent years has become something of popular hero, standing as a beacon of hope for women who suffer domestic abuse in her native Uttar Pradesh.  But the bigger battle Ms. Pal has been waging is that against the culture of honor and shame which runs deep in village communities, a culture which often allows acts of abuse to go unnoticed.
Rather than tell the story of Ms. Pal, the documentary shows her in action, as she brings family dramas–which range from unwanted marriages to rape–into the public light. (“I don’t like commentaries and I don’t want to be told what matters… I like to see things happen,” explained Ms. Longinotto in a recent interview.)
Ms. Pal’s aim is to challenge people’s mindsets and her strategy is to speak about taboos. In one scene, a young woman turns up to Ms. Pal’s doorstep alleging her mother-in-law killed her baby because she was a girl. Ms. Pal publicly confronts the elderly woman, who denies having killed her granddaughter, and the villagers quickly turn against the woman. Although it’s widely condemned, female infanticide is still common in parts of India.
“When she’s around she makes things happen, she creates a mini theater and gets people to talk about things in front of her and gets them to change their minds about it,” said Ms. Longinotto.
Another taboo subject is rape, which is widely seen as something shameful to talk about. Ms. Pal regularly fights against this attitude and the common belief that the raped woman herself is also shamed. Here too, Ms. Pal’s approach is one of direct confrontation.
In one scene, she tells a man accused of raping his daughter-in-law that he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. (Although Ms. Pal constantly threatens the law, she never does the law. It’s the long, drawn-out procedure that seems to put her off.)
Ms. Pal isn’t always successful, especially when caste is involved. In one particular incident, a young man, Gudda, is desperately in love with a girl who belongs to a caste considered untouchable.  For the boy’s family, whose caste is higher, marriage between the two is out of the question. “Our family will be stained forever, they’ll say you’ve been with an untouchable,” one of his brothers tells Gudda on the phone, which is on loudspeaker. They tell Gudda their sister will never find a husband if he stays with the girl.  The villagers seem supportive but ultimately his family has the upper hand. In the end, Gudda departs with his brothers, leaving the girl broken-hearted. (“I’m too weak,” he explains, in tears.)
Ms. Pal’s strategy also speaks of the limitations of her work. It is frustrating to see in most cases that the people she lends a hand to have no choice but to return home. They rarely have anywhere else to go. Ms. Pal is aware of this and focuses on what she can do instead: mentioning the unmentionable as a catalyst for change.
Getting people to speak out against injustice is Ms. Longinotto’s central aim with this film, one she wants to get across beyond the social realities she deals with in Pink Saris. “This doesn’t just happen in India, domestic abuse happens everywhere,” says Ms. Longinotto. “I keep meeting people who tell me they were abused and don’t speak out… this allows [those who committed the abuse] to get away with it,” she added. She mentioned, for instance, the abuse of children by priests in Europe and the U.S. that rocked the Catholic Church in recent years.
Gender and power relations have been a running theme of Ms. Longinotto’s films, which include the award-winning “Divorce Iranian Style.” (1998) which tells the story of the struggle of women against a law that was on the side of men.
Pink Saris, which was recently screened at Delhi’s Persistence Resistance Festival, can be purchased in India from Under Construction and in the U.S. from Women Make Movies.
Margherita Stancati | India Realtime | 22 Feb 2011
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