India's Red Brigade ready for battle

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    Sep 22, 2012
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    In the dust-blown courtyard of a slum village on the outskirts of Lucknow, 25-year-old teacher Usha Vishwakarma is leading her 'Red Brigade’ gang of teenaged girls in mixed martial arts training.


    In the dust-blown courtyard of a slum village on the outskirts of Lucknow, 25-year-old teacher Usha Vishwakarma is leading her 'Red Brigade’ gang of teenaged girls in mixed martial arts training.

    They are kneeing imaginary assailants and punching out at potential molesters, all in the cause of a fightback against Indian manhood which has surged since a 23-year-old student was gang-raped and killed by six men on a Delhi bus last December.
    Last week more than 100 new recruits donned the uniform of red kurta pyjama tops, baggy black trousers and dupatta scarves as they joined Miss Vishwakarma’s unique response to India’s troubling increase in rapes and sexual assaults against women. The Red Brigade does more than shout about abuse: it humiliates and beats male tormentors.
    Most of her recruits are, like her, victims of sexual assaults, harassment or attempted rapes and have joined her the group in frustration at the failure of Indian political leaders and the police to curb sexual violence.
    Last week Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dixit, one of India’s most powerful women tipped by some as a future prime minister, voiced her own frustration. She said nothing had changed for women despite the national soul-searching which followed the case.

    Women were still too afraid of 'insensitive’ police to go to a police station and report a sexual assault and many were intimidated because their assailants were relatives or neighbours, she said.
    Miss Vishwakarma’s answer to police inertia is to first confront “Eve teasers”, the commonly used and deceptively innocent-sounding term for abusive offences ranging from bottom pinching to serious assault.
    This is done by massing her cohort outside suspected offenders’ homes late at night to denounce them as sex pests and hurl insults in front of their family and neighbours. If that does not deter them or produce a show of humility, they deploy up to 15 young women to slap them about the face and body, or hoist them in the air and beat him with their sandals.
    It is a radical approach in a country where women are expected to be meek and subservient and to suffer in silence rather than risk shaming or dishonouring their families by talking openly about sexual abuse.
    Her decision to start the group was borne out of bitter experience: Miss Vishwakarma was assaulted herself by a teacher colleague during the school day.
    “He was someone who knew me. I had been to his home two or three times. He suddenly grabbed me in a bear hug and started sexually assaulting me. I was surprised but kicked him twice in the stomach. He fell to the ground and I ran to my home,” she recalled.
    She had expected him to be ashamed of his behaviour but instead he denounced her to their colleagues as a 'bad girl’. None of the teachers supported her, she said, and like her pupil who had been raped, the police refused to register a case against her attacker. Instead she was persecuted with anonymous sexually explicit messages on her mobile phone, allegations were made to the police that she had been involved in kidnappings and even sexual harassment, and her head teacher transferred her to another school.
    The police raided her home late at night when she was away staying with a friend. Charges of threatening behaviour, theft and sexual harassment against her against her were dropped only after her family protested, but even her relatives warned her to drop her campaign for justice, she said.
    Although she was shocked, she fought back. Her experience convinced her to dedicate herself to confronting a widespread problem. “I decided to form a gang of girls who had been sexually abused. I wasn’t interested in violence. I just wanted to protect myself. So I started to plan self-defence classes. Our red kurtas represents danger and the black trousers represent our protest. Indian girls like red dresses,” she said.
    “The plan was three fold. First when someone hurts or teases any girl we will protest because Indian girls are shy and can’t protest. We’ll challenge them to change their mind. If they don’t understand we will go to their home and complain to their parents that what they are doing is unlawful. But if this fails we will send the Red Brigade to their place to insult them publicly. The last thing, because the police are not supporting us and to make them understand, we make a slap. All these girls, sometimes fifteen of us, together and they slap them,” she explains after a martial arts lesson at her spartan academy, tucked in a narrow bylane of Lucknow, the teeming captial of Uttar Pradesh state, which borders New Delhi.
    Her resolve was deepened by a number of other incidents among pupils and staff, including the rape of an 11 year old girl by her uncle. “The police would not file a report. It happened in her own home as she was sleeping,” she said.
    So far her Red Brigade units have beaten up four unrepentant suspected molesters, responding to complaints from victims.
    After receiving the sandal treatment, one offender ran away promising never to trouble the girl again. The parents of another man thanked the brigade for their actions.
    The girl the latter had abused is now one of her Red Brigade fighters, Laxmi, 16, a slight schoolgirl with a long pony-tail. “I joined because of the Eve teasing. Some boys had started making comments to me, sexual comments, and touched me, I was very scared,” she said. Later, she slapped her assailant, and is now convinced martial arts is the answer for India’s girls. “When the Delhi gang rape case happened, I just felt sadness, sad for all girls. Doing martial arts will protect us all,” she said.
    Their willingness to resort to physical force is controversial among India’s feminists who while admiring their bravery, fear it will undermine their fight for better enforcement of equality laws.
    “For a village girl to take on these rapists and molesters is definitely an act of courage, but they should avoid vigilante justice. While we all criticise the law, we need to work hard to strengthen it otherwise there will be chaos,” said Ranjana Kumara, one of India’s leading women’s rights campaigners.
    The causes of a surge in reported rapes throughout India are under debate. Some blame the migration of poor labourers with traditional attitudes to the cities, where girls and women are especially vulnerable in slums.
    One of the cases that has appalled most is the attack on a five-year-old slum girl left fighting for her life after she was kidnapped and brutally raped by her 22-year-old neighbour in New Delhi.
    In the capital 463 rapes have been reported so far this year, more than in the whole of 2009 and more than double those in the same period last year. More than 2,000 of India’s 24,000 rapes in 2011 were committed in Uttar Pradesh.
    Usha Vishwakarma said one of the biggest challenges is that most Indian women simply want to get married and settle rather than fight for their rights. Unlike them, she no longer wants a husband and is searching for a more radical arrangement for traditional village India.
    “The psychology of Indian men is to use women for their own service. They want to make them like a servant. That’s why these incidents are happening.
    “When I think of a husband, I think of a dictator in charge of the house. I want a partner who can understand me, not a dictator,” she said

    India's Red Brigade ready for battle - Telegraph
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