Sheila, Munni and popular culture replete with sexual and sensual references notwithstanding, the debates around Delhi’s Slutwalk reveal that we’re still hypocritical about acknowledging women’s sexuality, says Manjima Bhattacharjya
I’m sitting in London and the BBC is reporting that hundreds walked Delhi’s streets on July 31 to protest sexual harassment – although, it noted, there was “little of the skimpy dressing that has marked protests elsewhere” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14357443). They write: “Most of the marchers in Delhi were soberly dressed in jeans and T-shirts or traditional shalwar kameez.” (Someone tell the BBC that even jeans and T-shirts are controversial in India – especially when young women wear them, provoking calls to ban women from wearing jeans every few years.) This would have left Indian media rather disappointed, having spent considerable airtime and vocal energies in the last few weeks anticipating with rising excitement what girls participating in Delhi’s SLUTwalk would wear. It’s that word that has caused all this excitement and disappointment, the debate, the sermonising, the distancing, the embracing.
I’m at first relieved that Delhi’s Slutwalk march (also called Besharmi Morcha in an attempt to localise the march) did take place after all without any scuffle from rightwing hoodlums. I’m impressed that 19- and 20-year-old women pulled off organising it and articulating their thoughts to a paparazzi-like media. While I’m not sure if there really were ‘‘hundreds’’ of people on the street (and if there were, I don’t doubt that half of them were media) but just the fact that young girls and boys, a common public, not attached to women’s groups or political parties, came out onto the streets on a Sunday morning to protest against sexual harassment of women is to me, a critical turn in sexual politics.
The resistance to the word ‘slut’ though is more difficult to understand. So a police officer in Toronto said in January 2011 that ‘‘if women don’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts’’. So what? It’s not new to Indian ears. Our rape law was born from one such judgment – the Mathura case in which a young girl was sexually assaulted by two policemen, but the court did not find the policemen guilty, saying that Mathura was ‘‘habituated to sexual intercourse’’. The judgment led to outrage from women’s organisations, which called on the government to reform rape laws, which it did in 1983. Many cases have followed in Mathura’s wake: all of them have shown us that the state machinery routinely attributes blame for violence against a woman to her ‘character’ or lack thereof – insinuating of course sexual impropriety – or in other words, ‘sluttiness’.
The central idea behind the Toronto police officer’s comments is therefore not new to us even if the word ‘slut’ is. Just as the Mathura judgment enraged women’s organisations here in the early-1980s, the police officer’s comments enraged a young generation of women who decided to march the streets in their skimpiest clothing, making the point that whatever women wear, they cannot be violated – that a woman’s clothing has nothing to do with rape or sexual harassment. Within months women mobilised to hold mass demonstrations from Toronto in April 2011 to Chicago in June 2011 and in between in smaller towns like Dallas, Asheville, Ottawa, Boston, Denver, Calgary. Fuelled by social media outrage and videos and ideas going viral in cyberspace, it quickly outgrew Canada, sliding into neighbouring USA and even crossing the shores to Delhi – demonstrating the resonance that such an idea has across cultures.
Over the last month, the chatter around Delhi’s planned Slutwalk has been phenomenal. Five thousand people have associated themselves with their Facebook page and even bothered to write a comment and engage with the issue. I have read debates on a feminist listserve, watched in amazement a whole page of newspaper dailies devoted to the event and listened quite agog to the special debates on the issue on news channels. The usual grouses have been shared widely: that it is a Western import– which it is but so was Take Back The Night and the 16 Days of Activism that takes place every November; not about poor women – which is not a necessary condition for the validity of a protest march; culturally insensitive and contextually misplaced – an old grouse. Women young and old, but especially young, from around the country have analysed, discussed and critiqued various aspects of the chatter: the problems with the word ‘slut’; the politics of clothing; strange justifications as to why men sexually harass women and so on. The discourse just got wider, more populated with opinions and just turned into a dynamic landscape over the last few months.
Will there be any more Sluttalking now that the Delhi Slutwalk is over? Who knows, but beyond the chatter, I think we missed talking much about the elephant in the room: women’s sexuality and how younger women today are expected to be somewhat ‘sexy’ if they want some social currency. In a recent research study I was part of which explored what middle class women experience online, the majority of young women explicitly stated the desire to represent themselves as ‘sexy’ in pictures they put up online, believing that it increased their social status amongst peers and raised their own self-esteem. Their own definition of ‘sexy’ was very broad and hardly controversial – anything from fitted jeans or a sleeveless top or even styled so that they looked like a movie star.
It is complicated: we now have a bevy of cheerleaders in IPL (usually women who are conspicuously not Indian), advertisements and popular culture replete with sexual and sensual references (especially positive affirmations by women themselves – think Sheila, Munni and so on) but still dressing ‘slutty’ (which, the Indian media tell us, means wearing ‘‘fishnet stockings and micro minis’’), as the subtext of debates on Slutwalk tell us, is crossing cultural boundaries. We are still hypocritical about acknowledging women’s sexuality and how it is really all around us today, and in flux.
To be fair though, I have met many sex workers and women in prostitution, and have never seen them wear anything more or less than any other poor, marginalised women. But perhaps we would also like to be able to dress ‘like sluts’. Or wear red lipstick. Or a flower in our hair, a shiny nosepin. Just on any day, not just our wedding day when it is legitimate for a young woman to acknowledge her sexuality without the fear of being raped or being assumed to be a slut. I’ve never worn fishnets and a micro mini on the streets but now I know I probably can’t because the discussion around Slutwalk has made it clear that certain boundaries cannot be transgressed.
The division between good women/bad women is one of the deepest divides amongst women. An initiative like Slutwalk strikes a feeble but important blow at this iron wall (at least the way it has manifested in the West). Women not only spend their lives trying not to get raped but also trying not to be called sluts. This is of course difficult given that it takes very little to be called one, especially in our context: this one laughs too loudly, this one smokes, this one drinks wine, this one comes home late from work, this one is a dancer, this one talks to boys, this one leaves her hair open, this one wears lipstick, this one wore a sleeveless blouse, this one wears jeans… you get my drift.
In our case, we were still distancing ourselves from sluts, not only not- embracing the word, but also the concept. A Slutwalk won’t reduce the number of rapes or directly reduce the number of cases of harassment on the streets – for that we will need sustained political will, convictions, safer cities, public attitudes, embracing women in the public sphere and many other things. But that isn’t the point (perhaps the most repeated refrain by people defending the initiative). A few weeks ago a man bludgeoned his daughter (in fact, try Googling ‘man bludgeons daughter’ to realise the volume of cases out there) to death because she went to the mall with boys (http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com). The point is what basic message the Slutwalk initiative gives out: in their website the Toronto organisers state that the reason for Slutwalk is ‘‘because we’ve had enough’’.
Because, really, we have had enough.
Infochange News & Features, August 2011