Vigilantes versus vindicators: Women in South Asia

From the WSJ Informed Reader blog:

A gang of feminist vigilantes in India has taken it upon themselves to use any means necessary to stop domestic violence and expose official corruption in one of the country’s poorest regions.

The so-called Pink Gang — named for the color of the saris they wear — has about 200 members (including a few men) who live in Banda, in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, reports Neeta Lal in the online Asian-affairs magazine Asia Sentinel. The group formed in 2006 with their first act of vigilantism: beating up a man believed to have dragged his wife around a courtyard by her hair. Since then, their tactics and their targets have expanded in a region where poor women have few freedoms and domestic violence is common.

The group also has shamed officials who sold grain from aid organizations on the black market, and stormed a police station to insist that officers take up a low-caste man’s complaint. It isn’t clear how the police responded.

This reminds me of a somewhat less sinister manifestation of collective action in South Asia. Paromita Sanyal is a doctoral student in Sociology at Harvard, and is one the job market this year. Her research looks at women’s micro-finance groups in Bangladesh and finds that these women’s groups have begun to take on a new power in their communities, such as intervening in situations of domestic violence, even when the victimized women are outside of the group.

Why does one group of women turn to vigilantism while another turns to peaceful social change? Why does either group do anything at all? If the beneficiaries are outsiders, or if the women themselves could still benefit even if they sat out, why take any collective action in the first place?

This is micro-politics at its best, and too few academics are taking a serious look. There is almost no quantitative work outside the US. Paromita’s work is largely qualitative and observational, and so while persuasive and important, is not fully convincing.

If things go well (read: if our donors pull through) I’ll be exploring this question in northern Uganda with two colleagues. Women participating in a micro-finance program will receive their support either individually, individually with a group support structure, or together as a group. Besides looking at the added contribution of these support and business networks, we’re hoping to stimulate some non-violent collective action.

Until I read this article, however, it hadn’t occurred to me that we might unwittingly create a band of Ugandan vigilantes. How will I explain this to my Institutional Review Board?

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