‘Okay, let’s start the debate’

Despite its overt contradictions, the Slut Walk is targeting stereotyping,victim-blaming and sexual violence offered ‘gift-wrapped’ to women 
Ishika Chawla Delhi
 
Rain drops keep falling on my head’, the old, unforgettable melody came crashing in down memory lane when it started to drizzle at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on a Sunday evening devoted to a discussion on gender stereotypes. “It’s you women who have caused the rain; it seems like God shares your goal,” commented a middle-aged man at the small gathering.
 
These ‘rebellious’ women, desiring a ‘revolutionary’ change, have come together to organise a ‘movement’ which has gained momentum for its name, ‘Slut Walk’. Its desi version in India is called ‘Besharmi Morcha’ (Shameless Rally). “The walk is only a start and not the end,” said Umang Sabharwal, a Kamla Nehru College student, who, inspired by the Toronto Slut Walk, is determined to Indianise this concept in Delhi. “Okay, sluts, let’s start the debate,” laughed Umang, asking everyone to move into a circle. 
 
The concept of ‘Slut Walk’ has an interesting history. On January 24, 2011, in Toronto, a police officer, in a typically clichéd male expression of crass anti-woman prejudice and illiteracy, openly proclaimed that women should not be dressed like “sluts” if they don’t want to be sexually harassed. Clearly, this male mindset transcends geographies, societies, cultures. 
 
As defiance, and as protest, the Slut Walk has now become an international medium for women to express and celebrate their self-identity, freedom and sovereignty, to publicly narrate their anger and rebellion, and openly castigate and challenge the stereotypes of both ‘victimhood’ and ‘perpetrator’. “Our purpose is to change the mentality of the people, to target eve-teasing, victim blaming, harassment and other wider issues. We need to acknowledge that there is a problem if a man whistles at a woman, it shouldn’t be treated as a routine affair,” emphasised Mishika Singh, media coordinator of the campaign.
 
However, this change in mentality that they seek is a complicated affair, especially when applied to everyday lifestyle. The discussion on gender stereotypes was ironical with different viewpoints and contradictions being revealed. For instance, the prejudice of certain seats reserved for women alongwith the physically handicapped and the aged in the Metro, showcasing all of them as weaker and dependent! Or, in a Delhi public space where women are constantly pushed to the edge, objectified or harassed, most women are happy to utilise the ‘privilege’ of a separate women’s compartment. 
 
“Surely, in a regressive, perverse, anti-women, male-dominated environment, as in Delhi, a different space for women in the Metro is a must,” argued a Delhi University academic. “Even in cosmopolitan Mumbai, where women experience greater spaces of freedom, they have women’s compartments in the 
local trains.”
 
“The metro is crowded and men are literally X-raying you with their stares,” protested a woman attending the debate. Others cited the old, decadent DTC and ‘Blueline’ culture of ritualistic harassment inside crowded buses. The contradictions don’t end; some complain as to how women are treated like “delicate darlings”, although they are as capable as men if they had to push a car. A question raised was: “Logically speaking, if a man is with you at that time as well as a woman, who would you ask?” Others argue that instead of asking for ‘private spaces’ as in a Metro, women should reclaim their legitimate spaces in the ‘male public domain’.  
 
The Slut Walk enthusiasts, despite their noble ‘feminist’ intentions,  seem alienated from the ‘other’ female realities of chauvinistic, unequal India. Some of them (not all) seem to be located in the rarified zones of the ‘western construct’, elitist and protected from the relentless everyday struggles of tens of thousands of Indian women. 
 
The activists have been performing a 15-minute street play all over Delhi, spreading the message among students, the middle/lower-middle classes, and slum residents. The play performed at Aali village across Mohan Estate Metro Station near Sarita Vihar in south Delhi was a sarcastic take on how women are generally perceived in male-dominated society as being responsible for their own harassment: “Ab batao agar ladke chedenge nahin to kya karenge, haan.” (Now, if boys will not tease, what will they do?) It was disheartening to see not only boys but also grown-up men giggling at dialogues like “Woh meri naukrani thi, har cheez pura karna uski zimmedari thi.” (She was my servant. It was her job to fulfil all my needs.)
 
The play hit the nail where it hurts. It targeted stereotyping, victim-blaming and sexual violence offered ‘gift-wrapped’ to women. 
 
At the end of the play, these young enthusiasts questioned the prominent ‘audience’ giggles. Is it right? Meaningful? Cynical? Hopeless? “You’re doing a remarkable job; the world will laugh at you, the world is like this only,” said a bystander. Many villagers expressed a positive response. Some offered logic: “People listen with one ear and let it out from the other, that’s the problem,” complained a young villager in his twenties. 
 
Local women, encouraged by the play’s message, claimed they would inform their daughters not to be scared, and to be alert and intelligent. A mother disclosed how it’s not only girls that are targeted by such “gandagi” (filth); boys are not left 
alone either.
 
“We are aware that only a certain class of women might participate in the walk, but our main aim is to get the message across. The walk is not the ultimate thing,” said Umang. Some participants agree that what they preach is still not inculcated in their own lifestyle. However, it’s a start. “The solution is when we as a group come together and retaliate. I need to judge before I raise my voice. We need support,” stressed Umang.       
 
Box
India is a plural society and everybody needs space, so do those who are engaging in the Slut Walk. They are valued equally. The question of being elite does not arise. When you talk of the impact, then walking together makes a difference to the people who have come together in solidarity. This is an opportunity for many to come out and express themselves.
Kavita Srivastava, General Secretary, PUCL
 
The walk is a privileged woman’s show, role playing someone else’s alienation as sexual liberation. Sexuality is much more than dressing like a slut. This merely reinforces the stereotype. The walk should really translate as ‘randi morcha’, but because the word ‘randi’ conjures up the gory aspects of prostitution, it will never be used. The Slut Walk by definition implies a serious dichotomy between women who are actually shamed as sluts, those in the profession as it were (although there is nothing professional and no free choice about it), and those who espouse slutism as a performative gesture, something to prove their free choice through their ease with sexuality. It also imagines a dichotomy between the fun-loving post-feminists and the self-denying feminist prudes. To say the least, this kind of polarised thinking is totally feeding off market definitions.    
Nandini Chandra,  Assistant Professor, Department of English, Delhi University
 
I think the movement is flashy and quite elitist. Reductive in the idea of feminism. The issue of sexuality is not about being a slut. The complexities of the issue are not understood. I think the movement needs to be well thought and carefully planned. Large patriarchal mentality does not exist only within men but amongst women as well. A class of women who are well educated will be able to participate in the walk and call themselves ‘sluts’ much easily compared to the woman who does the dishes. I can’t ask my maid to call herself a slut and come for the walk. A class angle has to be looked at. This is not Canada, not the 1970s. This is not going to be a radical movement. The movement does not display the entire story.
Karen Gabriel,  Associate Professor, Department of English, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2011