A day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new US President, tens of thousands of women took to the streets across the United States and in more than 60 countries in protest. The new US President had previously, unashamedly, boasted about sexually assaulting women, while his brutal verbal comments at women, and his views on family planning have come under intense criticism. The marches were more widespread, however, in their message, promoting awareness of broader issues such as minority and disability rights. Such protests were seen as resonating other large-scale women’s resistance movements, particularly those such as the women’s suffrage movement.
In light of such protests and debates, I am drawn to two representations of women’s resistance movements in film: the 2015 British period-drama, Suffragette, and the 2010 documentary, Pink Saris that depicts the actions of the Gulabi Gang in India. The two productions are set almost a century apart, and in two vastly different regions. Yet, the issues they raise resonate even today. I have framed my discussion within Gayathri Spivak’s influential 1988 question, “can the subaltern speak?” Spivak, however, reasons that the subaltern cannot speak, and drawing on Karl Marx, goes on to contend that they must be represented. The subaltern is often seen as those outside of hegemonic structures, denoting subordination. They are powerless and voiceless, exploited within their homes, workplaces and within their communities, and discarded and placed outside of social structures, as if validating the injustices they are subjected to. Women, particularly, those who are poor or belong to a low caste or are uneducated, have long been – to draw on Suffragette – ‘ridiculed, battered and ignored’. While women have made strides in their fight for rights and equality, Spivak’s contention that the subaltern cannot speak, brings home dark truths. In examining the two productions, the question that gripped me was; ‘can the oppressive woman resist the forms of power and dominance that oppresses her?’
In Suffragette, Meryl Streep, making a brief appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the foremost figures of the women’s suffrage movement in England, addresses a crowd of women committed to fight for their right to vote and hold office. Set in 1900 London, in her speech, she speaks of their end goal, the long journey ahead,
“We are fighting for a time in which every little girl born into the world will have an equal chance with her brothers. Never underestimate the power we women have to define our own destinies.” (Suffragette, 2015)
The character goes on to urge fellow fighters to soldier-on,
“Be militant, each of you in your own way. Those of you who can break windows, break them.” (Suffragette, 2015)
It’s almost like there is no room for pity in their fight.
I first learnt of the Gulabi Gang watching an over two hour Bollywood production of the vigilante group. The film was titled Gulaab Gang. I must confess though, at first watch, I wondered if the film’s portrayal of these women, clad in pink saris, wielding axes and sickles as they ran into attack male perpetrators of injustice, served more to mar the message of empowerment than carry it forth. This led me to a question that I still grapple with; what happens when the discarded woman rebels? In such cases, then, does the resisting woman become overtly violent? Or, can such action be seen as a form of self-defence, protection and empowerment? A sort of liberation. Yet, perhaps, a more valid answer is found in a statement that Maud Watts makes to Inspector Arthur Steed while locked up in Suffragette,
“We break windows, we burn things. Cause war’s the only thing men listen to. Cause you’ve beaten us and betrayed us and there is nothing left.” (Suffragette, 2015)
There are significant arguments raised here that is relevant in considering women’s resistance movements of today. A question here can be, is the oppressed and discarded woman led to such forceful rebellion as a sort of last resort to strike a chord among the more dominant, often patriarchal, forces?
Strangely then – or perhaps, not so strangely, Maud’s proclamation stands true even in the case of the Gulabi Gang.
It is about a year after I watched Gulaab Gang that I watched and read other works on the Gulabi Gang. One particular production on the women’s movement was the 2010 documentary titled, Pink Saris, with its central focus being on Sampat, the founder and leader of the Gulabi Gang. The documentary follows her story as she and other members of the Gulabi Gang helps low caste women in Northern India’s Uttara Pradesh in addressing issues of sexual, domestic and marital violence and caste-based discrimination they face on an everyday basis.
One of the cases that the documentary depicts is that of a young woman, Rampyari, who is forced out of her house by her husband’s family for giving birth to a daughter as opposed to a son. Sampat recalls,
“I went to her in-laws. They said, ‘why did you bring her back?’ They swore at me. I grabbed a stick…and trashed them. They tried to hit me, but I got them first.” (Pink Saris, 2010)
Such resistance seems almost militant-like.
Yet, Rampyari’s story doesn’t stop here. Returning to her in-laws, Rampyari says that her father-in-law raped her while her husband worked in the city. Sampat is aggressive as she confronts that family once again.
And, how far does this resistance go?
What must be noted in the form of resistance that the Gulabi Gang adopts is that while Sampat and the members of the gang aggressively confronts abusive men and households, may use force to fight against injustice and take matters to the police, they stop short of, for example, making women leave their homes, despite their oppressive conditions.
Yet, in the fight that she puts up, Sampat shows no fear in what she does or how she rebels. But, perhaps, this is the point. That there is no room for empathy or remorse.