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Female outlaws crack gender barriers

2 DECEMBER 2003

India's recently murdered Bandit Queen leads the female outlaws legends portrayed in a new National Museum of Australia exhibition.

Outlawed! The World's Rebels, Revolutionaries and Bushrangers is the first exhibition to trace the lives and myths of national outlaws from across the globe.

The exhibition, dominated by male outlaws, includes the stories of four women who broke gender boundaries the Wild West's Belle Starr, Aboriginal outlaw Walyer, China's "Ten Feet of Steel" and India's Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi.

"Only a very few female outlaws emerge in folkloric traditions," Outlawed! principal curator Joanne Duke says. "Women traditionally played supporting roles, like Maid Marion in the tale of Robin Hood and Kate Kelly's support for her brother Ned, but over time stories about strong female outlaws have emerged and their legends are still being portrayed in popular culture."

The women featured in Outlawed! are:

  • Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen, who was murdered two years ago, the day after she dined with a National Museum curator seeking her story. After she was abducted and raped, Phoolan formed a robber gang which terrorised rich landowners and avenged her abusers. Her exploits, imprisonment and later role as a politician won her the respect of many Indian woman and members of her low born caste. Her life has been featured in a film and in several books, including an autobiography.
  • Belle Starr, who was shot down in 1889, ending a career as a horse thief. Starr married four men, three of them outlaws. Her legendary outlaw status largely revolved around a life she did not lead. Her violent death inspired a raft of films and books.
  • Hu San Niang or "Ten Feet of Steel", who was one of a band of 108 mostly mythical 12th-century characters known as the Chinese Water Margin bandits. She was an excellent horsewoman and brave warrior who fought alongside male colleagues, helped the poor and protected the weak. Her tale is portrayed today in Chinese art works, opera, and ballads.
  • The Aboriginal outlaw Walyer, from Van Diemen's Land. Abducted in her teens and traded to sealers, she escaped in 1828 and led attacks against settlers and other Aboriginal groups. Eventually imprisoned, this victim and perpetrator of violence has become a symbol of Aboriginal resistance against white settlement in Tasmania.

Outlawed! is on show at the National Museum in Canberra until 26 April 2004; Melbourne Museum from 28 May to 10 October 2004; and the Queensland Museum in Brisbane from 20 November 2004 to 3 April 2005. Entry is $8 adults, $6 concession, $5 children, $16 families.

For interviews or more information please contact Public Affairs Director Martin Portus on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or m.portus@nma.gov.au

 

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