pink saris and the cruelty of life

Today I watched a documentary by Kim Longinotto called Pink Saris, the story of Sampat Pal Devi, a woman from the Uttar Pradesh region of India who has known her own tragedies yet becomes the advocate for women—mostly very young girls—in her region who are abused or abandoned by their families.

The story is told through a string of family dramas into which she (and the camera) inserts herself with her entourage of mostly men if not the “gulabi gang” of hot pink saried women, victims who have joined her efforts. (Al Jazeera English did a great documentary on them, here and here.)

These are family dramas involving child brides, caste conflict, beatings, rapes, abandonment… many forms of violence against women. There are a thousand tears shed, wiped lovingly with the scarves which adorn the women’s necks and seem meant for that purpose alone.

She fearlessly and aggressively confronts and scolds those involved, even taking them to the police, then opens her humble home and her embrace to the girls who she assuages with her promise to be their mother, reminding them over and over how alone they are.

Sampat Pal is not perfect. There are inklings that despite the fact that her actions are admirable their motivation is driven by past experiences in her own life which have left a residual anger (but then again, so rightly so). To see a woman standing up in the bold way she does to male authority in such a patriarchal and conservative society is almost as shocking as the crimes she protests. There are moments in the film that you can taste the potential for violence, the seething way some of the accused men stare her down like promises that they will not allow her such liberties for long. You fear for her as much as you fear for the girls she protects.

Her behavior causes friction even in her own relationship with her partner, Babuji, a high-caste and educated man with whom she lives (her husband is still in the picture, with a few strange cameos in which he scurries along behind her like a timid beast). Towards the end of the film he confronts her with her hubris and her need to be “grand,” claiming she not only dominates but alienates him from her life. She basically tells him off, feigning indifference but in the next scene she is clearly devastated by the thought that he might leave her.

The film is not without the awkwardness inherent in documentaries of this sort, in which all involved are well aware that they are on camera. The girls speak to the cameras (one can only imagine how odd even its presence is to them) with an almost scripted monotone which gave me pause, yet however practiced their camera cameos may or may not be, it is quite clear that their stories are very real, and terribly brutal.

It is an important film by a very respected filmmaker, who portrays a very brave woman, replete with flaws and vulnerabilities despite her hardened shell, whose voice is raised in the name of a few women in a village whose stories are duplicated like echoes of cruelty in villages throughout the world. In the end this is not a story of caste or country, but universal, and devastating in its message regarding women’s status today.

“A girl’s life is cruel… A woman’s life is very cruel,” Sampat Pal Devi says, something we women of privilege often forget, for however difficult our struggles may seem with balancing our little challenges of self and society they are nothing in comparison to the struggles of women in less fortunate circumstances all over the world.

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