The common Indian slut is a girl who has had the audacity to have had consensual sex and the naiveté to expect nobody to judge her for it. Her natural habitat is some tree-decorated borough in a metropolis, her upbringing privileged and her lifestyle equipped with all the trappings of bourgeois affluence – a good education and considerable freedom and support to do what she wants. The common Indian slut, therefore, is not so common. She is part of a teeny tiny minority of women in this country who can hardly be regarded as representative of the Indian woman and her ordeals. Yet, Slutwalk or Besharmi Morcha is exactly that – an attempt to gloss over the range and depth of oppression that Indian women have to put up with in order to entertain a sudden upper middle-class urge to do something...anything.
It took mass action in Toronto earlier this year to galvanize Delhi’s public into convening and protesting, clearly indicating that the march is really being led by people who are heavily influenced by the “Western” media. Now, I am not suggesting that just because this rally was organised by a certain class or set, it is to be dismissed. It’s because this rally constitutes only that certain class and set, that its political and intellectual commitments appear wobbly. It is not reverse-classism to denounce SlutWalk as the act of well-meaning but ultimately ill-read girls for whom public life is a series of strolls from a metro station to a waiting car, usually in a gaggle. The Facebook group for the event had women saying things such as, “I believe the greatest freedom is the freedom to wear what I want.” The problem with a statement like this is that smacks of a sociocultural advantage that very few women in India can even dream of, much less demand. The freedom to wear what you want is all very well but what about the freedom to even be on the streets wearing what you want?
In an article I recently read, Annie Zaidi touched upon something that I remember saying to a friend when I first read about the SlutWalk. The word ‘slut’ itself is such an endemic term; who uses it and who gets called it? Certainly not sex workers and punters; or blue collar migrant labourers from rural regions stuck in a time warp where women must still behave according to medieval gender roles or risk abuse worse than being called names; or the lower middle class city dwellers who propel their ascent by keeping orthodoxy towards their females well-oiled, if somewhat disguised by a patina of status production activities like ‘education’. So who? It’s rich kids who can be openly promiscuous without any real repercussions that do the slutting and the slut-shaming. Of course, that doesn’t make the term less problematic in this context either since it still targets only the girls and has troubling implications for the potential to construct healthy sex-positive self-images among young ladies. BUT. That is not the point. The point is that the term ‘slut’ has such a supremely restricted role that it cannot be appropriated as a tagline for any truly feminist argument against the status quo. We cannot ‘take back’ a term that was never ours to begin with but is a verbal graft that runs out of meaning beyond the confines of the microscopic group of Indians who would use it.
Women in India are not harassed for being ‘sluts’, they are harassed for being ‘women’. Period.
Their sexual history is irrelevant, their clothes don’t matter. The fact that they dare be in a place that only men should be in – that’s the problem. Sexual crimes are always about power, about who is in charge. Indian men feel increasingly emasculated and threatened when they see women in areas previously dominated by them and in their struggle to re-establish authority, they resort to the violence of sexual assault, whether it’s verbal or physical. In the minds of most Indian men, there is no such thing as ‘slut = sexually free woman’. There is such a thing as ‘free woman = target for sexual assault’.
The fight to be out on the streets is really what this protest should be about. Out on the streets whenever we want, wherever we want and yes, wearing whatever the hell we like. This is a tussle for public space – the Indian male’s sense of entitlement and the Indian female’s sense of deprivation – against the interplay of slowly weakening traditions and reactionary backlashes occurring in the conflicts between the urban and the rural, the poor and the rich, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the man and the woman. This is about the patriarchal codes that control our commons and civic spaces. This is a battle for the right to walk unmolested through any strip of land within the Indian border. This is about equality. This is about all women, from prostitutes to rag pickers to factory workers to university students, having the liberty to go about their business when and how they see fit. How is that possible when this spectrum of concerns has been reduced to pseudo-political pageantry meant to appease “good girls from good families”?
SlutWalk is an annoying, antifeminist paradox. It is recreational hacktivism of the kind which topples over the very ideas that it is meant to uphold, by tearing down feminism (from Toronto to Delhi) and pandering to ignorant notions of patriarchy-friendly (!) ‘gender equity’. It packages serious issues that Indian feminism has been dealing with for years into a designer occasion that plays right into all the conventions and clichés that femininity worldwide is expected to conform to, challenging nothing and confirming chauvinist male attitudes by reassuring them that all the ‘sluts’ *giggle* really want is the licence to wear really tiny skirts and won’t they allow that pwetty please?
Something far more sensible and sensitive is 'Take Back The Night', wherein people stay out all night at a candlelight vigil to talk about their experiences and come up with safety solutions, or to a lesser degree Blank Noise’s ‘I Never Asked For It’ campaign which had women from all over the country send in the clothes they were wearing at the time of assault (unsurprisingly, full sleeved salwar-kameezes made the cut thus proving the concern about ‘wearing what I want’ redundant) and arranged a clothes drive on one of Bangalore’s busiest roads. Both these campaigns are inclusive and interactive; they enable members of communities, castes and classes across a very wide scope of locations to participate in constructive and meaningful dialogue and improve their society’s understanding of feminism and gender violence outside the home.
What does SlutWalk do? Provide weekend entertainment for some advantaged young women like politics in a Happy Meal?
-- Kamayani Sharma is a recent graduate, perennial malcontent and ardent consumer of pulp fiction. She hopes to be a feminist philosopher when she finally grows up. She blogs at: