SlutWalk Delhi Starts “Immodest” Discussion in India

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

Comments

  1. In Lisbon, Portugal, too. From what I saw, even though the words and situations may be different, the connotations are the same. The name SlutWalk was kept here, but there were plenty of translated boards and signs echoing that same sentiment we’ve been seeing a bit all over.

  2. I completely agree with the objectives, but worry that there is a danger of people getting fixated on the clothes in terms of freedom to wear anything, and the core message that ‘violence isn’t related to clothes’, getting lost. (Not that the freedom to wear anything one wants isn’t necessary or great, but we first need to get the message across that criminals harass and rape, clothes are irrelevant).

    • Hi Apu. But thats the point! The message might not come through clear but the point of slutwalk is stopping to blame it on people’s/women’s clothes/behaviour means exactly that: it can happen and does, irrelevant of clothes/behaviour and that there are no excuses. Its a movement about getting rid of making excuses, in my opinion. The Indian media is particularly obsessed with this point. Not only because it doesnt translate but because not showing skin in public is a really important and sensitive issue here. Sadly the message is getting lost and confused through no real public analysis/debate.

  3. Slutwalk Delhi caused a media storm yesterday, sadly focus laid on ‘what were they wearing’. As-kind of-predicted. Still, it was an amazing energetic event that has got people talking…i hope this wont die down immediately and a momentum can be garnered. Interestingly, most well-known women’s organisations stayed away. I was there and kept telling the media who were asking why there werent many people, and if it was dissappointing, that yeah, its dissappointing but its mainly because people werent sure about the logistics (no mention of it coming up in the major media outlets/papers in the days prior) adn the fact there was a special police decree THE DAY BEFORE slutwalk that said meetings at this venue were forbidden. although Ive seen my pic snapped, not one person quoted any of these reasons. Im really fed up with sensationalism taking the place of honest and open discussion of issues.

  4. Hey,

    I realize the importance of bringing to light and fighting a lack of ethics. I just found it curious after doing a little searching on the internet that the populations of New York City and New Delhi are equivalent accounting for the rule in statistics that a difference of 5% or less is statistically insignificant since they could be due to errors in how the data was collected or reported. So, around 18 million for the populations of both cities and 483 reported rapes in N.Y.C. versus 489 reported rapes in New Delhi which, according to statistics per University of Michigan ideals, is also statistically insignificant meaning the number of rapes are equivalent. I guess the only x-factor could be the degree of reporting. Otherwise, India, still considered a third world country, is doing as well as N.Y.C.? Just food for thought.

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