They’ve walked in Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. They’ve marched through London, Amsterdam, Sao Paulo and Stockholm. They’re even organizing in Cape Town. And now, women walking to reclaim the word slut and end the practice of victim blaming are moving East–toward India.
As the SlutWalk movement grows, its recent expansion to India with SlutWalk Delhi–planned for the last week in July–has stirred considerable controversy. But whether or not the march to “reclaim slut” makes sense outside the Western world, the discussion over women’s freedom from violence has never been more relevant. With India recently named the fourth most dangerous country for women, politicians and activists alike are assessing just how much progress the “developed” nation has made in the march for women’s freedom from violence.
SlutWalk Delhi is the first such protest planned in Asia, and some wonder whether the SlutWalk title is really applicable: “On the street … you’re never called ‘slut,’” said Indian journalist Annie Zaidi to The New York Times. “It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.” In order to widen the reach of the movement, SlutWalk Delhi organizers have thus chosen an alternate Hindi name: Besharmi Morcha–the shameless protest.
Some opponents of the march also argue it is the cause of privileged city dwellers, detracting attention from more serious problems faced by women of lower status. Wrote journalist Amhrit Dillion in an editorial for the Hindustan Times:
It’s odd that the women who will be participating in SlutWalk have not been out on the streets denouncing female feticide or dowry deaths…Indian women are still denied so many fundamental rights that this preposterous event … can only be a [trifle].
But Delhi women aren’t marching for the right to walk down the street dressed in barely-there clothes, as critics suggest. They’re fighting for the right to walk down the street. Period. A recent survey by the United Nations found roughly 85 percent of Delhi women fear sexual harassment when outside their home. The Indian capital recorded 489 reported rapes last year, among the highest of any Indian city.
“Women can wear whatever they want [when marching]. … The point we’re trying to make is that it is not the clothes you wear that cause harassment,” said SlutWalk Delhi organizer Umang Sabarwal to The New York Times.
Sabarwal and her co-organizers aren’t the first to address the harassment issue in India. Bangalore-based organization Blank Noise launched the “I never asked for it” campaign in 2008, in which Indian women were encouraged to send in the clothes they were wearing when sexually harassed or assaulted. Unsurprisingly, the results ranged from jeans and a T-shirt to a full salwar kameez or sari. Said Blank Noise in a statement,
We hope women will stop blaming themselves, [their] body, [their] clothes. What Blank Noise hopes to do is bring together 1,000 clothes … and collectively defy the notion of ‘modesty.’
Modesty is what it all comes down to: Under current Indian law, rape is defined as the attempt to “outrage a woman’s modesty.” This definition creates huge gaps in laws protecting women. Under the Indian Evidence Act, a woman who is considered to be in “poor moral standing” can have it used against her in a rape trial. Virginity tests are still used as a means to determine a rape accusation’s validity. “When a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix [victim] was of generally immoral character,” the law reads.
It seems that if the woman has already supposedly “outraged” her own modesty, it’s less likely others will be prosecuted for doing the same to her. However, the opposite is true for the defendant. Says the law:
The fact that the accused person has a bad character is irrelevant, unless evidence has been given [by him] that he has a good character, in which case it becomes relevant.
Such legal definitions cement the mindsets that movements like SlutWalk fight against. Critics such as Dillion seem to think the violence facing rural or tribal women is wholly removed from the harassment suffered by women in urban centers. But it’s all an expression of the same dangerous patriarchy, one in which women are valued only for their modesty and must suffer consequences if they fail to protect it.
“Just making laws to protect women against violence and abuse is not enough,” said legal activist Rama Sarode, who works with Sayhog Trust, a Pune-based organization that leads both legal efforts and projects like sensitization trainings for police to end the practice of victim blaming. There have been policies enacted to protect women in the home and on the streets, but poor implementation renders them basically ineffective. Sarode said:
A collaborative effort of the different stakeholders and members of society at large is required to stop violence against women. Most important is that we learn to respect woman as a human being.
Whether it’s through staged SlutWalks or legal action, any movement supporting women in India takes them one step closer to feeling safer from the threat of violence.
Photo from Slut Walk Delhi‘s Facebook Page