In a small, rarely talked about African kingdom, surrounding the king, is an elite and highly trained corp of bodyguards. Armed with staved and spears, they command respect everywhere they go. And they’re all women. This isn’t Wakanda and the Dora Milaje. This is Benin, the western neighbor of Nigeria, and these are the Dahomey Amazons. My name’s…
Life in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, India is, delicately put, not easy. Summers bring intense heat and drought. 40% of the population lives below the poverty line; nearly 50% of women never learn to read. The caste system is in full effect, with a glut of people in the Dalit, or Untouchable, caste. Girls are married by age 12, female infanticide is common and sexual abuse is pervasive. Domestic violence is just part of life, because abusers never face consequences. Uttar Pradesh as a whole ranks as one of the most unsafe provinces for women in the country, with 1,963 cases of rape, 7,910 cases of kidnapping and 2,244 cases of dowry death — women murdered or driven to suicide because of a dispute over their dowry.
It is against this background that one woman took up conspicuous tools to fight back–a pink sari and a big stick. Sampat Pal Devi was married at the age of 12 and soon had five children to try to support selling vegetables. One day in 2006, she overheard a neighbor beating his wife and Devi tried to stop him. She wasn’t strong enough to do it herself, so she gathered some other women and together they gave the husband a sound beating. News of Devi’s actions spread like wildfire, “A woman in a pink sari is making a lot of noise.”
That emboldened Devi not only to continue, but to gather more women. Many more. Over 400,000. This female vigilante group is called the Gulabi Gang. Gulabi is Hindi for pink and the women all wear pink saris, as Devi did that first night. a name which references the pink saris that they wear (“gulabi” translating to “pink” in Hindi). Today, women as young as 16 and as old as 60 each receive a pink sari upon their initiation (so much cooler than anything Mary Kay ever gave out) and a long bamboo stick called a lathi. In a society that so often silences women, Devi and the other Gulabi women are protecting themselves and others.
When a woman does go to the police, they ignore her. I don’t mean, they patronize her and do nothing with her case, as we’re sadly used to in the west. They pretend there’s no one there at all. “The justice system in Bundelkhand is dysfunctional and unreliable,” says journalist and author of Pink Saree Revolution, Amana Fontanella Khan. Khan says that Devi’s goal of gender equality and freedom has found success in Bundelkhand due to her bold and creative way of protests and has further empowered women here. “The Gulabi Gang has stepped into the vacuum left by the state and offers an alternative means of attaining justice.”
When word of abuse reaches the Gulabi Gang, they confront the abuser, to try to make his face justice or change his ways. If that fails, which is often, out come the lathis! You might not agree with the idea of addressing violence with yet more violence, but the Gulabi Gang could be the difference between life and death for many women. “If we find the culprit,” Devi says, “we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again. We feel empowered to fight any crime against women. We don’t fear the police, or any authority, because we fight for the truth.” The Gulabi gang fights not only sexual and domestic abuse, but child marriage and even for female education.
In 2007, an Untouchable woman was sexually assaulted by a man of a higher caste, and nothing was done. The villagers and members of her caste protested and many of them were put into prison for their trouble. The Gulabi Gang charged the police station to free the protestors and demanded that a case be made against the rapist. When the policeman in charge refused, they gave him a taste of what they do to men who abuse women. From that time, the Gulabi Gang was known to use physical violence if needed to make a point and if physical violence was of no use, then they would resort to publicly shaming the offender. I don’t want you to think they go straight to the nuclear option. The Gulabi gang also uses non-violent tactics such as marches and occupations, and of course publicly shaming offenders.
And it’s not just female-based issues, either, but basic rights for even the poorest people. In 2007, Devi learned that government-run shops, a bit like welfare, were not distributing food and grains to the villagers as they should. The Gulabi actually went undercover to collect evidence. They found that the grain that was supposed to be given to the poor was being taken to street markets for sale. They turned the evidence over the authorities…who did nothing. Their work wasn’t in vain, though, because it had bolstered and spread their reputation. Beating up one of the corrupt cops probably didn’t hurt in that respect either. In 2008, they stormed a power company office in Banda district. Officials there had been shutting off power to extort bribes from people. The Gulabi gang were able to force them to turn the power back on.
“Men who commit these atrocities should be beaten by women,” says Devi. ““I have seen many changes in our area. Awareness is growing, and we are seeing more justice. Now people are more systematic in their work, and they also support our organization. It is always challenging to fight victim cases, but we persevere. Women are not being tortured here anymore.”
Devi isn’t the only strong woman from that part of India. In fact, if you google the phrase female freedom fighter, almost all of the results are from India. Uttar Pradesh and neighboring Madhya Pradesh have also given the world princess ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ who revolted against the colonial rule of British, to the more recent Phoolan Devi, who sought revolt against her rapists by turning into a bandit.
In northern Iraq and into Turkey and Syria live the Yazidi people, probably about half a million or so, though it’s hard to say with certainty. They tend not to marry outside their community and their faith, while having some aspects of Christianity and Islam, is a distinct religion. They worship Malak Taus, a peacock angel God appointed to babysit humanity. Absolutely google “peacock angel,” you will not be disappointed. If the Yazidi were animals, you could say they have one natural predator–ISS. The Islamic State called them “devil worshippers” when they began attacking the Yazidi in the town of Sinjar in 2014. USS killed an estimated 5,000 men and boys and took thousands of women and girls to be sold as sex slaves. Many Yazidi fled into the mountains, with terrorists close on their heels. Some people were abandoned by their families so they wouldn’t slow the family down. They had no supplies and many feared they would starve to death. ISS mined the area, so even when they came down from the mountain, they wouldn’t return home.
One woman who escaped the terrorists and survived the mountain was well-known in Sinjar. 36 year old Khatoon Khider was a singer and musician, playing weddings and festivals, but after all that she witnessed, she put down her tambur and picked up a gun. “I was famous in many places. But I left all of that after what happened and I became a soldier.”
After her lucky escape, Kider wanted to fight back. This was not just a crime against humanity, but a crime against women and she refused to be a victim. She would make her stand with the first all-female Yazidi fighting battalion. With so many women having lost family members, including their own children, and some having been captured and escaped, there was no shortage of volunteers. Some 1700 women would join Khatoon. They call themselves the Sun Ladies. The battalion received weapons, training and support from the government of semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. They are the first female battalion of the Kurdish regional army, the peshmerga, which translates to “those who face death.” It’s an enormous transition for these women. The Yazidi are a strictly patriarchal society, so with only 6 weeks of training, they have gone from homemakers to soldiers.
One of the Sun Ladies is Khatoon’s 21 year old sister, Aliya. “I knew many girls who were taken by ISIS. Many of my school friends,” says Aliya. “Some of them are still captured by ISIS. If they knew about weapons, they might have escaped from ISIS.” The sisters come from a military family. Their father was and grandfather were soldiers, and their brother is also in the peshmerga. Khatoon had chosen a civilian life for herself prior to the attack, but Aliya always wanted to be a fighter, wanting to be like her older brother.
The Yazidi have had to fight for as long as anyone could remember, constantly being under siege from someone or another, be they terrorists or governments, or being pinned in the cross-fire of other people’s conflicts. The Yazidi count over 70 separate massacres in their history. Part of Kider’s motivation for starting her battalion was not just for revenge, but to stop anything like the ISIS attack from ever happening again. There are no recent reports of how the Kider sister and the Sun Ladies are doing, but that also means there’s no news of them having been wiped out, so I’ll take it. If you find anything more recent…
Women have been involved with military action, in one capacity or another, as long as there has been military action. With the exception of Russia in WWII, which you can read about in the YBOF book, women weren’t allowed into combat roles in modern militaries until relatively recently and in limited capacities. Special forces? Forget about it. It was only this year that the first woman became a Green Beret. But leave it to a Scandanavian country to lead the way. In 2014, Norway formed the Jergertroppen, or Hunter troop, the modern world’s first all female special forces unit. Just because the unit is for women, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Of the 317 candidates who tried for placement the first year, 88 made it through the selection course and of those, only 13 made it through training — a whopping 4%.
The idea for the unit began in 2013, under the code name “Tundra.” It was the brainchild of a pair of brothers, the current and former head of the Armed Forces’ Special Command, Eirik Johan and Frode Arnfinn Kristoffersen. They realized there was a liability in the Global War on Terror–Afghan women would not speak to male soldiers. Since women are half the population, that means potentially missing out on half the available intelligence. Norway’s response was to create a unit that *could interact with local women, while operating at an elite level. Thus we have the Jergertroppen.
Candidates are selected based on attitude and physical fitness, readiness for all situations (so no being afraid of water or heights), and they have to survive “hell week,” which involves, among other trials, long marches over several days with little time for rest, and minimum amounts of food and water. If you’re still in at that point, you face a 10 month training program that includes a patrol, standard survival, winter survival, shooting, communications, medical, counter-terrorism, parachuting, close combat course, vehicles, and urban reconnaissance. Colonel Kristofferson remarked that Jergentroppen have “displayed superior shooting and observational skills” and one male special forces soldier said “a lot of the time they shoot better than the guys.” To complete the program, candidates must be able to march 9mi/15km through a forest with 50lb/22 kilograms of gear in under two hours and 15 minutes; do 50 sit-ups, six pull-ups, and 40 push-up in two-minute intervals–that’s the same number of sit-ups and almost as many push-ups as are required for Navy SEALS; run 2 mi/3km; and swim .25mi/400m in under 11 minutes, and they have to stay submerged for the first 25m. It’s like the Presidential Fitness Test from my nightmares. I can walk, like, a mile with my phone and wallet, that’s about it.
In addition to proving themselves physically, the Jergertroppen must also prove themselves mentally. They spend a year learning to stay on-mission despite food deprivation, sleep deprivation, long marches through the snow, you name it. Human beings are not good at dealing with being cold, tired and hungry, but that can’t be allowed to impact a mission. Speaking of missions, the Jegertroppen have gone on …. none. At least as far as the most recent articles about them report, but they are special forces after all. It’s not like they send out press releases.
The Black Mambas were the first female anti-poaching unit, but they aren’t the only one. In Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Area, a 115-square-mile former trophy hunting tract in the Zambezi Valley ecosystem, are the Akashinga, the Brave Ones. It’s a program that not only saves animals, in many cases, it saves the women involved. The Akashinga are one arm of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. The IAPF was founded by Australian Damien Mander. Mander was an army special-forces sniper who served twelve tours in Iraq. 12. All that time in combat, then it’s “Ok, go back to civilian life.” It’s hard to just switch it off like that. But Mander was able to find a way to channel his skill and to do good in the world. He moved to Zimbabwe and formed an anti-poaching squad, but the results were disappointing, so Mander changed his strategy. He fired the men and began training female rangers, specifically recruiting women who had been given a way deal by life. After all, who better to defend the threatened and the helpless than someone who knows what that feels like? “Thirty-six women started our training, modelled on our special-forces training, and we pushed them hard, much harder than any training we do with men,” he explains from his tented camp at a secret location in the Zambezi Valley. “Only three dropped out. I couldn’t believe it.” Years earlier, Mander ran a similar course with 189 men. At the end of day *one, all *but three had quit. So that’s 8% of the women quitting vs 98% of the men. Just sayin’.
Mander tried to push the recruits to their limits. He tried to put them through hell, but as he got to know them, he found out, they’d already been through hell. One woman’s husband left her with one child and another in carry, with not way to support them. Another woman’s husband would beat her so badly she couldn’t stand. A woman in her early 20’s was raped by a neighbor at 17 and became pregnant, then the rapist’s mother took her child to raise and hasn’t let the mother have any contact with her. Sleeping in the mud is nothing compared to that.
From the very first day of the women’s training, he saw that something very special was happening. He realised that women were the missing link to successful conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. For most of the Akashinga, being a ranger is the first job they’ve ever had outside the home. To the surprise of no one, the community was not super gung-ho on the idea. The men in their villages harass, ridicule and belittle them, but the Akashinga don’t care. They care about the animals. Like a leopard killed by a group of men who claimed it attacked them and they had to kill it in self-defense. The rangers could tell from the superficial nature of the men’s wounds, and the fact that a leopard pelt and teeth are worth a health month’s wages, that they were lying.
There were other benefits Mander couldn’t have anticipated. The Akashinga seem impervious to bribes and corruption. They spend their pay in their communities; a female salary-earner in the Phundundu region spends 90% of their pay on their families, as opposed to 35% by males. When they make arrests, they de-escalate the situation, rather than letting things become violent. Then there is their devotion to the animals. As one Akashinga put it, female rangers are superior to the men because “women have a motherly heart.” And there is, let’s face it, the stereotypical tendency of women to talk, especially in a rural setting where not a lot is happening. Somebody finding a nefarious way to make money is some juicy gossip and the Akashinga have ears in the villages to catch it. The success of the Akashing illuminates their key principle to the community, that wildlife is worth more to the community alive than it is dead at the hands of poachers.
The Akashinga live together, in a hilltop camp with a panoramic view of the area, and eat their meals together (a sustainable, cruelty-free but calorie rich vegan diet crafted by a chef hired by Mander). On one morning, Mander briefs them on two raids set for that night, one on the compound of a man suspected of having illegal guns for hunting and the other on the home of a suspected poacher said to be trying to sell a leopard skin. They spend the day in drills, ensuring each ranger knows her position. Then Mander gets behind the wheel, four rangers jump in the back with a local police officer, who will oversee the raid, and the team sets off.
In the single-digit hours, the Akashinga approach the first target. Mander speeds their jeep into the compound and the rangers leap out and take up their positions. One knocks on the front door. The suspect eventually allows them inside, where they find several pelts from a species of small antelope. The man is handcuffed and loaded into the truck. One target down, one more to go. The Akashinga have been up for more than 24 hours, but “We are not tired,” one told the reporter riding with them, “We don’t tire until our job is done.”
And that’s… Back to the Dahomey Amazons, so named by a European explorer, naturally, because they reminded him of the Amazon women of Greek legend, as all women warriors seem to. The corps began with skilled hunters, then the ahosi were added, the third tier wives of the king. Some women were forced to join, either because they were slaves or by their husband or father. But many women joined voluntarily. The guarded the king of Benin for nearly 300 years, growing to number around 6,000 until the last king was overthrown by France in 1894 . Remember…thanks…