The name Phoolan in Hindi translates to ‘flower’. Soft and docile, beautiful and precious, eventually bearing fruits; everything that an ‘ideal’ woman is supposed to be.
Phoolan Devi represents everything that this mystical ideal of a woman is not. Described as being ‘foul-mouthed’ and ‘bold’, she was married off at the age of eleven to someone three times her age. This was her punishment for standing up to her cousin brother in an attempt to save her ancestral land. Her life then takes a continuously exploitive turn that leads to her leading a gang of dacoits and eventually being assassinated.
Phoolan’s life at her husband’s home was limited to servitude and many instances of physical and mental abuse. Unable to deal with the constant harassment, she ran away to her family home, only to be both ridiculed and hypersexualized as someone who was kicked out of her husband’s home. She was sexually assaulted by the son of her village headman, someone belonging to a higher caste, who then used her to publicly humiliate her. In a retelling of her experience, she describes her being abducted by a gang of dacoits as ‘the dictate of fate’. She is then repeatedly sexually assaulted by the leader of the gang, in an amalgamation of the vulnerabilities of being both women, and belonging to a lower caste.
Phoolan develops a relationship with one of the gang members, who belongs to the same caste as her, and he eventually kills her abuser. Her lover and her then lead the gang, participating in gang activities that involved attacking and looting villages populated by upper caste people. The only woman member of that gang of dacoits, she was labeled a ‘bad omen’ by the upper caste members of gang, and later held hostage in a village, where over the period of three weeks of captivity she was sexually assaulted continuously every night. Having lost her previous lover to a gang fight, she escaped from her captive village and soon moved in with a gang member belonging to her own caste, and established a gang consisting only of members of their own caste. Several months later, she returned with the gang to the village she was assaulted in to seek revenge. She shot dead twenty-two men from the village, leading to a massive manhunt that was not successful due to Phoolan’s support from poor people in the area who offered her shelter and cover. Two years after this incident, she surrendered to the police under her terms of negotiation. She later went on to be imprisoned, where when she was operated for ovarian cysts, the doctor performed an unauthorized hysterectomy to prevent her “from breeding more Phoolan Devis.”
Phoolan Devi’s life is an anomaly, an example that is oft touted as what not to be. Not only was she a woman belonging to the lower-caste, but one who was constantly assaulted and undermined due to the fact. She is inspirational not just because of the trauma and struggles she persisted through, but also because she refused to conform. She was illiterate throughout her life, and her story was exploited by British media companies who wished to profit off her struggle, but only after altering it to meet the ideal of a damsel in distress. Arundhati Roy describes this as her “sexual assault being the main dish, with caste being the sauce it is served in”.
Phoolan Devi is rightly described as being astonishingly brave, but she is also unapologetic in ways that every woman aspires to be. She cursed, took lovers, and did not succumb to the pressure to forgive, forget and accept her fate.
Image: Glaurung Quena via Flickr