I have a large wardrobe. I spend several minutes every day fretting about what to wear. Don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m a sharp dresser. I’m not. But I have to choose. There are work clothes (shirts, pants, jeans, long skirts); out-of-town work clothes (kurtas with sleeves, shalwaars); party clothes (sarees, sleeveless or low-cut tops); work clothes that can be worn to evenings out (jackets, shrugs); winter clothes; wedding/festival clothes (satin, brocade).
It’s not as easy as choosing between a pink lehenga and blue jeans with climate control factored in. What-to-wear is a finely calibrated decision. I think of whether to take an auto or a cab, train or bus. I think of where I’m headed, at what station to get off, at what time.
And despite all this, even if my legs and arms are fully-covered, even if no cleavage or belly is on display, I’m afraid. Even this great bustling insomniac city will not let me be.
Nobody has accused me of dressing ‘slutty’. But every day of my adult life, I have had to protect myself from the aftermath of random strangers on the street attacking, abusing or threatening me. Note: I am not saying I protect myself from attacks. What I’m protecting myself from is the aftermath. From people who will say that my clothes were provocative, that the time of the night and my being alone was an invitation to assault.
So yes, I get the sentiment that makes a bunch of women in Canada declare: Yeah, we’re slutty, so what? So what if we sleep around? So what if we wear tiny skirts and high heels? So what if men look at us and want us? Is the police force trying to tell us that rape is alright? Are you saying we deserve to be hurt?
And yet, when I heard that someone was organising a Slutwalk in Delhi, a part of me went sort of quiet. A young journalist from Delhi wanted my views on whether it would have an impact. I found that I didn’t want to talk to her. Not right now.
I don’t like the word ‘slut’ and have no interest in reclaiming it. But even as I tried to form a coherent response, I found myself writing: “The issue is not the word. The issue is a world that wants to inflict violence upon a woman and uses her clothes or sexual history as an excuse.”
Because I was feeling so prickly, I began to call other friends. It turned out that a lot of us — including brazen feminists who have been questioning notions of decency for a while now — have mixed feelings about the impending Slutwalk.
A lot of it has to do with the word ‘slut’. A young man, Kuber Sharma, expressed some of my own discomfort when he wrote: “Seriously folks, we need to think a bit about this legitimising of a term forced upon by judging prudes!” Anita Roy, commissioning editor at Zubaan, a feminist press, is ambivalent too: “Unlike the Blank Noise campaign, which makes the point brilliantly that molestation has nothing to do with the kind of clothes you wear, the Slutwalk organisers are having to work very hard to reiterate and underline that you don’t have to dress up like a slut in order to participate.”
The ambivalence also comes from older feminists despairing at women wearing tinier skirts and higher heels than ever, even in freezing weather. Just as they aren’t buying into the pole-dancing (or item number) as empowerment argument, they’re also not buying into the ‘I wear what I like therefore gender equality has happened’ argument. Freedom is one thing. Freedom to dress in ways that potentially damage your health just because you need men to approve of you is another thing.
Besides, there’s some resentment at the way these well-meaning youngsters have provided ammunition to those who call feminism a Western concept, irrelevant in India. Anita Roy points out that many non-Western patriarchal societies view women’s sexuality itself as a ‘Western’ notion. “But this thing [Slutwalk] is so clearly a Western import that it plays right into the hands of critics of the Indian feminist movement.”
On the other hand, if boundaries are to be pushed, someone has to take some risks. Jasmeen Patheja, founder of the Blank Noise Project (a group I’ve been part of since 2006) points out that Slutwalks are a kind of performance. There is an element of fiction here. And it is a fiction that sells. The media is lapping up the story of provocatively-dressed women demanding their right to provoke. Cameras focus on women wearing bras (clearly, feminists with arsonist tendencies are ancient history) so that ‘skimpy clothes’ are not just the first thing we see. They’re the only thing.
Anita Roy tells me she is surprised that nobody has thought it fit to write about how girls getting felt up in a bus might be linked to female foeticide or honour killings. Being a ‘slut’ would imply promiscuity but in India, girls aren’t even allowed to have a boyfriend (singular), or are killed if they marry for love.
Meanwhile, the fiction has whipped up a storm even before the fact has materialised. Celebrity columnist Shobhaa De has dissed the proposed event for being an ‘attention-seeking protest … neither workable, nor desirable.’ Seema Goswami drew up a damnable analogy. She compares a woman who attracts attention to a house that’s unlocked and therefore likely to get burgled. All of which is making me pricklier and pricklier. I now find myself wanting to get into arguments about ‘workability’. Is the only workable solution finding a rich man who provides us with a glass bubble to commute in and bodyguards to fend off assaults? As for seeking attention, that’s the bloody point! Anger and pain are at the heart of every movement, but when we march, we must sometimes wear the boots of provocation. Slutwalk is designed to provoke. The Delhi organisers, however, are undergraduates. They’re too young to have factored in class or local context, although they seem to be doing some re-thinking now: Slutwalk Delhi has been renamed ‘Besharmi Morcha’ (Shamelessness Front). It still doesn’t sound right. ‘Besharam’ (shameless) is what your grandmother might call you if she gets shocked at the lowness of your low jeans. It captures none of the rage Indian women feel at being attacked for simply being outdoors. Language was what made it hard for me to approve of Slutwalk at first. I was going on and on about how I don’t think of myself as a slut. Then Jasmeen Patheja reminded me that it isn’t about what we are. “It’s about the ‘She asked for it’ attitude. Slutwalks are spreading across the globe because women everywhere find themselves blamed for the violence they are subjected to.” Naturally, comparisons are being made between the Blank Noise Project (BNP) and Slutwalk. Countering blame has been the main focus area for BNP, which has been creating an archive of testimonials and an exhibition of clothes worn by women when they were sexually harassed in public spaces. On ‘street actions’ volunteers have been encouraged to wear outfits other than what they’d usually wear. But BNP never drew as much flak as Slutwalk. And it didn’t get the same kind of visibility or support either. Neha Dixit, a Delhi-based journalist, says that there’s a whiff of scandal that comes off Slutwalk (the word, the clothes) and the Pink Chaddi campaign (which reacted to an incident in Mangalore, where right-wing goons assaulted women in a pub by asking supporters to mail pink panties to the office of the political party that backed the thugs), which has helped to popularise them. Social networks helped too. “Facebook played a major role in promoting both Pink Chaddi and Slutwalk,” says Dixit. Besides, Slutwalks offer what Dixit describes as “an out-and-out chance to rupture ‘morality’ and conventions in full public glare.” Until now, bra-burning and protests marches defined feminism, at least at a superficial level. “This [Slutwalk] is a spectacle: The spectacle of one’s own feminist movement. It may be a facade but it instigates young women to come out, refute, protest, fight. It’s a show of strength.” BNP, in contrast, nudges us towards reflection. It employs humour and cheekiness. It banks on public curiosity rather than public outrage. But then, a lot of us spend a lot of time thinking about what, and who, we’re addressing. BNP volunteers have always included artists and academics. Form was as important as content. One of our volunteers, Sunayana Roy, a freelance writer, thinks that while BNP is more introspective and Slutwalk appears to be ‘a direct challenge to the world’, one approach isn’t better than the other. She would have joined Slutwalk if it was happening in Kolkata, though she does have doubts about its efficacy. I’ve encountered the ‘efficacy’ question dozens of times: When I gave letters to strangers, talking about the kind of rage and hurt you feel when you’re sexually harassed; when I walked around at night, turning our hurt into street graffiti.
People would ask, ‘Isse kya hoga?’ (What will this accomplish?). The answer is always the same: Who can say? And how do we judge efficacy anyway? Unlike hunger strikes undertaken to press for a new law, or a demonstration calling for the arrest of a politically-connected murderer, the success of a protest against blaming victims for sexual assault is very hard to measure. If we look at the number of people supporting it on Facebook and the thousands who have pledged to join Slutwalk, it is already a success. Will it stop Delhi’s male population from behaving badly? If you ask young men in Delhi, no. Kuber Sharma believes that most men will just follow the ladies, mobile cameras in hand. He thinks that rather than declaring a war on men, Slutwalk needs to engage them in some kind of dialogue. So perhaps Slutwalk will not succeed. Who can say? But sometimes, we can change our world just by living on our own terms. Sunayana Roy says she has felt her own neighbourhood grow inured to the sight of a woman dressed in short or tight or unconventional clothing every day. After a while, people just don’t notice. “The day that happened,” she says, “I felt a sense of achievement and liberation that I cannot describe!” Yet, as women’s experiences in Toronto and other Western cities show, people being used to women wearing short clothing doesn’t necessarily change attitudes when it comes to violence; the malaise runs very deep. That is why Shubhashish Nichani, a journalist who grew up near Delhi, thinks that this is not the right time for a desi Slutwalk. “The main problem is that Indian men look at women as commodities. That has to change. Slutwalk should be the last nail in the coffin [of patriarchy], not the first.” Anita Roy agrees. If she was in London, she would have supported Slutwalk unreservedly. “In India,” she says, “Slutwalk has connotations of being only for the young, urban and beautiful people.” The ‘classist’ nature of the protest is something that’s causing discomfort even amongst young, urban and fairly liberal citizens. There are jokes on Twitter about how it should perhaps be called ‘SelectCitiSlutWalk’, a reference to Select Citywalk, one of Delhi’s biggest shopping malls, full of expensive brands and moneyed families. So, perhaps it is true that Slutwalk Delhi will be pushed by privileged young women who have not suffered much because of their gender, but are outraged to discover that they can be subjected to violence and humiliation, and that the clothes they wear will be used as justification. That they should be outraged is also true. But violence comes in degrees. The kind of brutality we read about — teenager blinded while fighting off rapists; mother-of-two set on fire for reporting rape — makes the freedom-to-dress-as-we-like issue look like a petty tantrum, definitely not very high up on the list of priorities for women’s rights activists. But let us not make the mistake of dismissing young anti-blame, anti-shame activists. There is nothing more putrescent than to allow half the human race to assault and humiliate the other half, and then blame the victims for bringing it on. Violence against women is a human problem, and it cuts across class and race. So perhaps the new feminist discourse will be rooted in this: This battle to undo the hundreds of big and small violent acts against the bodies of our sisters, this struggle to live without fear. The Besharmi Morcha might be a small reactionary wave. It might not lead to anything. But I see it as a point on a continuum. Organisations like Jagori address many kinds of violence against women. There’s BNP, which is more focused on sexual-social violence. There was Pink Chaddi. Now there’s Slutwalk. We are all doing what we can. Let us not piss on the single spark just because it is not already a great consuming fire. But is it ephemeral? Will it sustain? Isse kya hoga? Who can say?
(This story appears in the 15 July, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)