Drawing parallels with the English folklore hero Robin Hood, a vigilante group in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has taken up cudgels on behalf of women who see no help coming from the administration in times of distress.
Dressed in traditional black and red salwar kameez – the ‘red brigade’ as they are known locally – fights crimes against women not with guns and swords, but with public shaming of assaulters.
The girls – mostly teenagers – patrol the streets in neighborhoods on the outskirts of capital Lucknow or the City of Nawabs to guard women against the gaze of criminals and sexual assaulters.
If a male over-steps his mark and assaults or harasses a woman, the brigade will approach and ask him to stop. Should he refuse to stop his unruly behavior, he will be mocked publicly – a massive snub in such male-dominated society.
Most of the members of the brigade have been harassed in one form or the other with some even raped, mostly by their family members.
Activists have time and again blamed Indian Judiciary for being too ‘sluggish’, but that is not the sole reason why these women chose to fight their own ‘battle’ on the streets where no help seems forthcoming.
Blaming police and other law enforcement agencies of being hand in glove with criminals, the girls say that cops don’t even entertain their pleas.
As such, these girls say, the crime goes unpunished and the victim is forced to suffer in silence. In such a situation, the girls say, they have to act as ‘no one else will’.
Usha Vishwakarma, a teacher by profession, started the self-defence group several years ago after she discovered that an 11-year-old girl she taught in a school near her home had been raped by her uncle.
What, however, paced the formation of the vigilante group was an incident when Vishwakarma was attacked by a colleague, who tried to force himself on her. She managed to overpower the person, but when she tried to report the behaviour of her colleague at the local police station, she was not even given an ear, let alone entertaining a complaint.
“This really upset me. It really affected me – I would see any man in the street and would get upset and angry,” Vishwakarma, 26, was quoted as saying by the CNN.
Very soon, she learned that all of her students had faced abuse in one form or the other, ranging from eve-teasing and lewd comments, to molestation and rape. Coupled with the behaviour of the police and such harrowing tales from her students, Vishwakarma knew her next plan of action – Red Brigade’s foundation was thus laid.
Non-violence is the mantra of the group, but as the girls inform, sometimes they have to take to violence when things go out of hand.
“The whole idea is to humiliate them,” Vishwakarma says. “We are well within our rights – this is self-defense. The police are not supportive so we have to defend ourselves.”
Following the brutal gang rape of a paramedical student by five men on a moving bus in Indian capital New Delhi on December 23 last year, worried parents asked their daughters to take self-defense lessons.
The members of the Red Brigade have also enrolled themselves in various gyms to take martial arts classes, but their aim is not just self-defense. They want to make sure that their training skills help them when situation goes out of hand.
They are taking martial arts classes at a sooty gym under the tutelage of a local Kung Fu instructor, Gyan (known only by first name).
From kicking and punching, to breaking the hold of an attacker approaching from behind, the instructor, who teaches them for free, is pushing harder to pass on his skills to the girls.
“I’m doing it for my own daughter. These girls are brave and what they are doing is humbling,” he says.