Gethin Chamberlain, in Lucknow, India, for The National, 6 April 2013
THE young women stride out along the dusty street that cuts through the Madiyav slum. Their bright red uniforms glow in the late afternoon sun and there is no mistaking their air of confidence.
Since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in December, women in India have formed the Red Brigade, a civilian group that aims to empower females to take back the streets, writes Gethin Chamberlain.
The men loitering around the market move aside warily, like a pack of wolves who have just discovered that the sheep are armed.
They have good reason to be nervous: this is the Red Brigade, intelligent and sassy young Indian women who have had enough of being groped, gawped at and much, much worse. Enough, they have said: we are fighting back and reclaiming the streets.
Since the 23-year-old student was gang-raped and murdered in Delhi in December, India has been in the grip of rape fever. Every day has brought new reports of atrocities against women from around the country.
According to the hopelessly underreported official figures, a rape take place in India every 21 minutes. Foreigners, too, have been targeted and the United Kingdom and the United States have both issued travel warnings to female tourists thinking of visiting India.
But as the spotlight has been turned on the plight of India’s women, something extraordinary has happened. After centuries of putting up with their treatment, women have started to come out onto the streets to make their voices heard.
Nowhere is this newfound confidence more evident than in the Red Brigade’s home city of Lucknow, scene of the infamous Indian Mutiny in 1857. But this is one rebellion that is going to be hard to put down.
Men have suddenly found themselves on the back foot, aware that any careless remark or attempt to force their unwanted attentions on the young women of Madiyav comes with the very real risk of a thrashing from the Red Brigade. The boot is on the other foot now, and that foot is aimed somewhere sensitive.
It was Usha Vishwakarma who set them on their way. Like most of the other girls, the 25-year-old had her own personal experience of the danger young women face in India when a fellow teacher grabbed her one day in 2007 and tried to rape her. She was 18 at the time.
“He grabbed me and put his hands round me and tried to open my belt and trousers,” says Usha, sitting in the bare-brick front room of her small house. “But I was saved by my jeans because they were too tight for him to open and that gave me a chance to fight, so I kicked him in the sensitive place and pushed him down and ran out of the door.”
She may have escaped, but for two years she was traumatised. No one in authority at the school would take her claims seriously. “They said forget it. That man is still teaching girls there, making sexual jokes with them. He sees sex everywhere and is greedy for sex.”
Unable to afford to give up her job, she had no choice but to work alongside the man who had tried to rape her.
“It was not just the one time, I have suffered many times, but I never forgot the first time,” she says.
“That man thought he could do anything with me and I would not oppose him.”
But slowly the depression began to lift, and by 2009, Usha felt strong enough to strike out on her own. In a small brick outbuilding next to her family home, she started her own school for children from the slum.
Still, all around her, she saw more and more young women suffering the same abuse she had faced. And it was threatening to undermine her young, female students.
“Parents were telling girls to stay in their homes so there would be no incidents,” she says. “They said if you go to school, boys will be troubling you, so stay home and there will be no sexual violence.
“But we said no, and we decided to form a group to fight for ourselves. We decided we would not just complain, we would take a lead and fight for ourselves.”
And so the Red Brigade was born in November 2010. They went out, bought red kameez(shirts) and black salwar (trousers) and started to plan the fightback. “We chose red because it means danger and black for protest,” says Usha.
They have plenty to protest about. Violence against women is on the rise in India, fuelled by a surplus of frustrated young men with little education, little prospect of finding a wife, ready access to pornography and attitudes towards women that seem woefully out of place in the 21st century.
Reported rapes are up year on year to 24,206 in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, although most experts agree that this merely reflects the tip of the iceberg because of the reluctance of the Indian police to take rape reports seriously. In one recent case in Uttar Pradesh, a senior officer dismissed a 35-year-old woman’s rape allegation on the grounds that she was the mother of four children and no one would want to rape such an “old woman”. Meantime, conviction rates have fallen 44.3 per cent in the last 40 years.
It is against this background that the Red Brigade was born. Its members want nothing less than a complete change in the attitudes of men in India towards the country’s women.
“It is in the minds of men that girls are material and it has been like that always,” says Usha.
“Religion shows women as very powerless and that who is strong can do anything.”
A small mouse runs up the wall and disappears into a hole. Girls drift in and out of the room as Usha talks. Some are in school uniform, others in the red and black.
“In the electronic era, there are pictures everywhere of women and girls being treated like material,” says Usha. “It is now very simple to see pornography and it is feeding the hunger for sex. The men think that if you are looking sexy then you want sex.
“I alone cannot change it, but we can change it together. We are working with teenage girls and explaining that men have to be responsible. Sex is very important but they have to honour me, they have to respect me and change themselves, they cannot think that girls are lower than boys.
“Everyone stops their daughters going out at night but I say to them: ‘Why are you not stopping your sons going out, because they are the problem’.”
There are 15 core members of the Red Brigade and about another 100 who join in when they can. The death of the medical student has galvanised them, says 18-year-old Pooja, Usha’s younger sister. They have started martial arts training so that men do not have a physical advantage over them.
And it is already paying off, she says, laughing as she describes how they taught one boy a lesson he will never forget.
“He had been taunting the girls, always calling out to them, saying he could have sex with them whenever he wanted,” she says.
“We all went to him and told him to stop, but he didn’t listen. One day, when all of us were there, he said it again.
“So we all stopped and turned round and we surrounded him and grabbed his arms and legs and he thought it was a joke, but we were not kidding and four of us lifted him in the air and the others started to hit him with their shoes and fists.”
The boy’s friends, terrified, turned and ran away. One went to the boy’s house and told his parents, who ran to the field to remonstrate with the Red Brigade.
“They wanted to fight, but we told them what he had been saying to us and after they had listened to us, they realised how bad he had been and then they beat him too.”
The rough justice the Red Brigade metes out might seem extreme to those with delicate western sensibilities, but these are young women who have had enough. Pooja describes how another young man insisted on making suggestive comments every time he walked past her house and saw her sitting on the step outside brushing her hair.
“He was always saying we looked sexy and asking us to go with him and singing sexy songs, though we told him to stop and not to talk to us like that,” she says.
“One day, he commented about me and I decided I had had enough, so I told the others and we decided we would go to his home. We did not have to beat him ourselves this time because as soon as we arrived the boy ran away. His parents realised he had been very bad because the Red Brigade had come and when the boy came home they beat him. Now when I see him in the street he looks straight ahead and cannot look at me and he says nothing.
“First we go to complain to their parents and if they listen, that is a good thing. But if they won’t listen, then the Red Brigade comes and together we catch the boy and we beat him.”
They all have stories of abuse, attempted rapes and daily harassment. “This is what happens in India,” says 16-year-old Laxmi, one of Usha’s lieutenants. “These things happen all the time. All of us know this, so don’t let anyone say otherwise. This is why we have formed the Red Brigade.”
Preeti Verma sits on the edge of the bed listening to the others talk. The 17-year-old is in her school uniform, playing with Usha’s bright red phone.
Her neighbour is a strong and powerful man in the local community, she says. Preeti’s family are poor and they have no toilet in the house, so they have to use the fields outside. Whenever she went to the field, the neighbour would throw stones at her to scare her and make her jump up.
“He wanted to see my body,” she says. “I said to him: ‘What are you doing? You are shameless, don’t you have a mother and sister in your house?’ But he replied that his mother is for his father, his sister is for her husband and that I was for him.”
Eventually her parents convinced the police to arrest the boy for harassment, but he was quickly released and told Preeti’s mother: “I will rape your daughter and do what I want with your family.
“I was so afraid and I was weeping,” says Preeti. “He was very strong, so what can I do?”
What she could do was to tell Usha, her teacher. Usha gathered the other members of the Red Brigade together and they went to the police. Now the game was up.
“When he knew he was up against the Red Brigade, that’s what made him stop,” she says.
“We’ve caught a lot of men recently,” says 17-year-old Sufia Hashmi.
“I joined up because men always used to make comments about me and touch my body, but now we beat them, so the men cannot do anything and they run away. You feel powerful and you feel good.”
Men who fall foul of the Red Brigade can first expect a visit from some of the women and a warning. Sometimes the Red Brigade will ask the police to get involved, but if all else fails, they take matters into their own hands.
“Before joining the Red Brigade, men used to abuse me and I used to cry,” says 16-year-old Afreen Khan. “But after joining, I have been able to revolt and I have even beaten some of them and now I can walk out alone, even at night, and no one teases me. They leave me alone. That’s the courage that joining the Red Brigade has given me.”
The next day, they gather on the roof of the Dragon Academy gym across the city to run through their moves, a mixture of kicks, punches and throws. The instructor shows Pooja how to use a wooden stick to keep a boy at bay. She holds it against his assistant’s throat and the boy looks terrified. The other girls gasp and giggle.
The girls sit in two rows while Gyan Prakash, the owner of the gym, demonstrates moves with his young male assistants.
“If a boy catches your hair,” he tells them, “do this”. And he demonstrates how to break the grip and send the attacker sprawling. The next minute he is demonstrating how to drive an elbow into the attacker’s windpipe.
For an hour, the girls grapple with each other, practising their throws, wincing as they hit the thin mats. Prakash urges them on. “More effort, kick harder, grab him,” he says.
Laxmi belts Usha in the stomach and sends her staggering backwards, gasping for air. But each time they are knocked down, they get up again, determination in their eyes to master the techniques they believe will help them fight back.
Yet it is not just the young men of the neighbourhood that the Red Brigade must overcome. Many of the girls are very young and, although some of their parents are supportive, others are convinced that the girls are wasting their lives.
“My parents are very demoralising,” says 16-year-old Simpi Diwari, a slight young woman who a few moments ago was kicking away the legs of one of her colleagues.
“I want to be like Usha, fighting against the cruel things, I want to be a teacher and a motivator too, but I am fighting with my parents just to be allowed out of the house.
“My parents are not supporting me. They force me to work in the house and not to go for my studies. They say that one day Usha will leave you and you will be on your own. They called Usha and said she was going to hell.”
Sufia stands beside her, nodding. Her father is supportive, but it is her mother who sees no point in the Red Brigade.
“She tells me not to go out, that it is a waste of my life, she wants me to just concentrate on my studies, but I want more.
“So many people comment on my virginity and I have decided it will not happen again. I want to be able to go out without people passing comment on my body and trying to touch me.”
On the way back to the slum, the rickshaws pass a public park and, for a moment, these tough young women drop their guard a little, just enough to serve as a reminder that many of them are little more than children who have been forced to grow up fast. They beg and plead to stop. “Please, please,” they say, their eyes gleaming in excitement.
And then they are off, shrieking gleefully as they race for the swings and the slides and the roundabouts. An hour ago Nargis, the youngest at just 11, was snarling, punching and kicking with the rest of them. Now she is swinging backwards and forwards on a yellow plastic duck, a huge grin on her face.
A little later they are strolling back through the market, eating ice-creams, heading for their homes. The sun is low in the sky, the shadows long. The men watch sullenly as they pass, but no one risks a word and it is clear that something has changed.
It may just be a start, but the Red Brigade are living proof that India’s women have had enough. Nothing will bring the medical student back, but she was a fighter who clung on to life long enough to point the finger at her attackers, to get even. Her fighting spirit lives on in the streets of Lucknow.