by Rita Banerji
In January, a Toronto police constable told a group of students at a school safety forum that to prevent being sexually assaulted they should “avoid dressing like sluts.” This victim-blaming message sparked a global grassroots protest movement called ‘SlutWalks.’ –Ed.
India wrote off the SlutWalk organized in Delhi as a terribly insignificant event. According to a police report, there were about 700 attendees in all, including 400 police personnel and 200 media people. That means the actual number of participants was probably not more than a 100 – a ridiculously miniscule number in a country with a population of a billion plus.
However, this was no big surprise. Even as the event was being planned, the organizers came under fire from all sides: from women’s groups, feminists, media people, liberals, and conservatives. They were unanimous in that this was a highly inappropriate event to be held on Indian soils. As one female journalist in an opinion column in a major, left-leaning newspaper in India put it, “[By] taking off [their] clothes and adopting the 'slut' word as signifying their right to dress as they please…[these women] have ironically proved the veracity of the Canadian cop's statement.”
In an attempt to ease tensions and woo more supporters, the SlutWalk Delhi organizers announced that they had decided to drop the term ‘slut’ and don regular clothes. Instead they would carry placards emphasizing the original message of the global SlutWalks, i.e. that all women have the right to safety, to not be harassed or sexually attacked regardless of how they are dressed.
But the fact of the matter is that millions of women, as they go about their mundane tasks of living and working, face sexual persecution on the streets and public spaces in India, on a daily basis. And they do so fully clothed. It matters little if they are low-income or middle class, educated or illiterate, housewives or professionals. Most girls and women step out onto the streets warily, always with their defenses up, always anticipating some form of sexual aggression: a rough groping of the breast, a pinch on the bottom, a lewd remark, or a sexual expletive.
India now ranks as the fourth most dangerous place for women according to a recent global poll by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. Rape is the fastest increasing crime in the nation, and Indian men rank last in the global gender-equity department, with one in every four men having committed sexual violence against women.
In other words, simply being a woman in India is cause enough to invite male aggression. Unnerving as it is for women to navigate public space in India fully clothed, it would take a really gutsy woman to step out in public in a bikini or bustier, SlutWalk or otherwise. Understandably, the ratio of participants to police at SlutWalk Delhi was 1:4.
But what about women who choose to dress less conventionally? As indicated by the changing fashion trends in popular Indian movies and soaps, a small section of young women and girls are opting to sport clothes that are designed not so much to conceal as to express their individual sense of aesthetics and need for free movement. And then there are women sex-workers, many of who have unionized in certain cities, who for their work might dress in a way that some would regard as brazen. Is it alright for men to harass or rape these women because of the way they choose to dress?
The answer is always an unequivocal – No! Safety is each individual’s absolute prerogative which no person has sanction to violate under any circumstance. This is the fundamental issue India seems unwilling to accept.
In 2009, a group of women were attacked, called “sluts,” and sexually molested by men at a pub in the city of Mangalore. The men justified their assault, saying the women needed to be taught a lesson for “involving themselves in immoral activities, including consuming alcohol, dressing indecently, and mixing with youths of other [non-Hindu] faith.'' The incident was filmed and repeatedly flashed on television. But it did not cause much public outrage in India, except for a gallant protest by a small group which came to be known as the Pink Chaddi campaign. Supported by barely 50,000 people, the Pink Chaddi campaign subsided as rapidly as it had risen, as its organizers came under threat.
But the most appalling response was from a female officer from the NCW (National Commission for Women), the highest office handling women’s affairs in India, who told the media that the women had indeed invited the attack because of the “nude clothes” they were wearing.
India’s apathy to the Mangalore pub incident, as indeed its knee-jerk response to SlutWalk Delhi reveals a deeply prejudicial social and sexual mindset. It is an outlook that results from a lack of collective introspection and awareness.
For instance, take the bewilderment about the SlutWalks embracing the term ‘slut,’ as expressed by this female Indian journalist, “Go take a walk if you want to. But I’m no slut; and I will be damned before I ever refer to myself as one.” What probably does not strike her, is that loosely used for sex-workers and women who assert sexual choice and independence, ‘slut’ is a term that has evolved for the social-sexual control of women. That is evident in how there is no equivalent term for men, other than ‘stud’ or ‘Don Juan’ which aren’t exactly derogatory. On the contrary, these terms are often meant as tacit compliments to a man on his sexual conquests. The underlying logic of this warped sexual cataloguing is that men are the conquerors, and women the sexual commodities meant to be owned by men. The push by the SlutWalks to own the term ‘slut’ is to render it powerless in its function of being a means to control women.
This leads to the final point that critics in India have leveled at the SlutWalks. The contention is that there are more serious issues facing Indian women than the one about their freedom to dress how they wish in public - issues like female feticide, female infanticide, dowry violence, and honor-killings, to name a few. On the contrary, however, the issue at the crux of the SlutWalk is one and the same as for all the other above mentioned afflictions. It is about the recognition of women as individuals with certain fundamental rights, including that of safety and personal choices, which no one, not even the family, can violate.
Every one of the issues named above is a violation of a girl/woman’s individual rights. A girl or woman, within the Indian cultural context, is regarded as a family’s property. She does not have the ownership of her own body. It belongs to the family she is born into or married into, and the culture and community she belongs to. And so it is the parents, the husbands, and in-laws who have the prerogative to decide and make the choices regarding a girl or a woman’s being - whether or not she is allowed to live after birth, whether or not she goes to school, whether or not she eats, what she wears, whether or not she can work, who she can or cannot marry, who she has to share a bed with, whose children she bears. Her husband is entitled to sex whether she wants it or not. He decides when and how many children he wants and what sex they should be. He and his family can torture her to extort more dowry wealth, or subjugate her to repeated pregnancies and excruciating abortions to rid female progeny as always is the case with female feticides.
Over and above the home and family, is yet another constrictive, dictatorial authority that asserts its power over an individual woman’s being in India – that of culture and society. It decides what constitutes the prototype of a “good Indian woman” – and directs everything from her demeanor and costume, to what her roles and goals in society ought to be. Every time a woman chooses to contradict this model she faces consequences like the women at the Mangalore pub did. Not surprisingly, there is no equivalent model for a “good Indian man.” That would constrict his individuality, sexuality and personal choices.
The basic message of the SlutWalks to society is this: “A woman’s body is her personal domain! And nobody else’s!” It is the cornerstone slogan of freedom from slavery for all human citizens. It is time that the women’s movement in India learnt to embrace it. SlutWalk Delhi was only one small step in that direction.
About the author:
Rita Banerji is a writer, photographer, and gender activist. She is the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global campaign that is fighting the ongoing female genocide in India. Her book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies came out in 2009. It was long-listed for the Vodaphone-Crossword Non- Fiction Book Award (India). The same year she also received The Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.A.). Rita's vision for the future she thinks is somewhere in Beethoven’s 9th symphony! Visit her website www.ritabanerji.com.