Critical Perspectives on SlutWalks in India.
The coverage of this event presents an occasion to reflect on what we mean by "failure" in such contexts. Since the Bhopal march, other SlutWalk-inspired marches in India have been organized: one in Delhi, and another that was organized in Bangalore in December 2011 but was banned at the last minute by police. In this article, I consider the challenges that organizers face and the limits of their organizing model for transforming cultures of sexual violence in India. Despite these challenges, I argue that the debate created by the marches has opened up an urgent conversation about the culture of sexual violence in India today.
The "Pride Stride" in Bhopal spurred a debate about the efficacy of the SlutWalk campaign as a tool against sexual harassment and sexual violence in India. A central question is whether reclaiming the term "slut" is an effective form of opposition to the discourse of "Indian tradition" that dictates norms of social propriety and women's chastity in public spaces. While citing the global SlutWalk movement as their inspiration, it was the Bhopal organizers who changed the name, stating that "slut" was a term that some would find offensive. The organizers of the Besharmi Morcha in Delhi emphasized that they changed the name to make the march more inclusive. Umang Sabharwal, an organizer of the Delhi event, said, "not all people in Delhi will understand the meaning of the word 'slut.' So after a lot of debate and discussion, we zeroed in on Besharmi Morcha. This way, more people in India will understand the real concept." (4) Conservative right-wing organizations and even some women's rights activists exclaimed in newspapers and online that the framing of the project around "shamelessness" was against "Indian values" and that "good" Indian women knew how to dress properly to avoid sexual attention. (5) Others criticized the limited appeal of the SlutWalk movement in India because they claimed the provocative attire would draw attention to women's bodies, rather than highlight the sexual violence different women faced. (6) These critiques suggest that the movement is exclusionary, only representing middle-class, urban, bourgeois values and leaving out lower-class Indian women and women working in the sex industry who deal with sexual violence every day.
Organizers of the marches in India moved away from the overt displays and provocative clothing that distinguished the first SlutWalk in Toronto, attempting to translate the movement into the less controversial and more familiar language of empowerment and women's rights. Local law student and Bhopal "Pride Stride" organizer Radhika Shingwekar emphasized that she tried to make the event suitable for the conservative atmosphere of Bhopal, asking women "not to dress in a way that would grab unnecessary attention." (7) The "Pride Stride" in Bhopal conceded to conventions of social respectability. The marches that followed Bhopal attempted to shift the focus away from provocative dress to a more normative language of women's rights and gender violence. Despite adopting moderate dress codes, these marches continued to provoke similar critiques about the ineffectiveness of SlutWalks and the careless disregard of SlutWalk activists for social norms seen as culturally intrinsic to India.
The marches in Delhi and Bangalore were highly anticipated in the media and subsequently treated as failures for their relatively small turnouts. The Besharmi Morcha in Delhi took place a few weeks after Bhopal's march on August 1, 2011. Leading up to the event, the Times of India declared that while the event would not "change stereotypes and mindsets," it was certain to "grab eyeballs." (8) In the same article, the event was described as a momentary movement that would not have lasting effects. Like the march in Bhopal, the Delhi march drew fewer numbers than expected, despite widespread media coverage that produced a general excitement for the event primarily because of the anticipation of provocative dress. Yet the organizers suggested that the protesters wear "regular clothing" to focus attention on how women in all forms of dress were subject to harassment and assault in Delhi. A large number of foreign women participated in the rally, and young middle-class women constituted the majority of the crowd. Most signs protesting sexual violence and harassment were written in English, and newspaper reports and online discussions of the event largely occurred through English-language newspapers and online forums. The Delhi walk was critiqued as a divide between East and West, and many critics suggested that the "Western" framework of the SlutWalk did not suit women's rights movements in India.
The most recent SlutWalk effort in Bangalore received the most dramatic conservative response to the movement since the initial march in Bhopal. Students at the National Law School in Bangalore organized a SlutWalk to take place on December 4, 2011. The day before the event, the police commissioner's office contacted the organizers of the event and asked if participants in the walk were going to wear "small clothes." The organizers assured the police there would be no issues in terms of public decency. Despite this reassurance, the police commissioner in Bangalore withdrew the permit for the march twelve hours before the march was scheduled to occur on the grounds that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as other Hindu nationalist organizations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, were aggressively protesting the event. (9) Further, there were threats of violence, and the police felt it was a "security concern" and therefore canceled the permit for the legal march. Following the cancellation, a woman's organization in Bangalore threatened the organizers, saying "if we find any women wearing short or skimpy clothes, we will trash them with a broomstick." (10) Others told the organizers that "if these hopeless, cheap women dress like that or come naked, they deserve to get raped." (11) On the day that the walk had been scheduled to take place, organizers and volunteers appeared at the protest site to tell people of the last-minute cancellation. They were told to leave the area immediately by the police, and nine people were detained and taken into police custody, released hours later without being charged with a crime.
One organizer of the Bangalore event, Protiti Roy, a law student at the National Law School, commented to me in a correspondence about the outcry against the walk: "I guess people don't bother to read beyond the name.... Very few people seem to realize that SlutWalk is about victim blaming." In response to my question about the critiques of SlutWalk as simply a Western import, Roy challenged the divide between East and West: "What part of SlutWalk is not part of Indian society? The victim blaming? The term 'slut'? ... I have heard that term being used enough times, in more languages than one." (12)
Even if organizers did not succeed in holding a SlutWalk in Bangalore, it is clear that the police and other public figures in India place the blame for rape on the behavior and dress of women who transgress boundaries of the "good" Indian woman. Recent statements by the police, government officials, and even academic figures point to the pervasiveness of victim blaming in acts of sexual violence. In January 2012, the director of police for the state of Andhra Pradesh in south India, V. Dinesh Reddy, told a press conference that the police cannot be faulted for rises in the numbers of rape cases and blamed women for provoking men with "fashionable clothing" such as the salwar kameez (a long shirt paired with loose-fitting pants). (13) Karnataka's Women and Child Welfare Minister, C. C. Patil, followed this statement by suggesting that women should know how much skin to cover and that he did not endorse women wearing "provocative clothes." K. K. Seethamma, former head of the Department of Women's Studies at Bangalore University, in a statement to the Times of India, emphasized that she endorsed the minister's views that placed women at fault for sexual violence. "I'm against women wearing obscene clothes. With such clothes, they tempt men and that's why they get raped. Even when one wears saris, long-sleeve blouses must be worn." (14)
The ongoing media controversy about provocative dress in response to the SlutWalk-inspired marches has opened up a conversation about a persistent culture of sexual violence that too often is naturalized in India. A simple appraisal of the Indian rallies and marches as a "failure" undermines a more complicated reading of the possibilities and limits of the SlutWalk in India. Responses to the media coverage of these marches reveal the pervasiveness of the notion that sexual violence is best controlled through the regulation of women. In everything from rape trials to popular media, the idea that women tempt sexual violence has been rationalized as common sense in India. The Besharmi Morcha campaigns, as a media sensation, have drawn attention to the stringent dictates of Indian women's respectability and "good" Indian culture, which continue to define women's terms of engagement with public space. Yet ultimately, like many controversies around transgressive sexuality in contemporary India, the controversy itself has garnered more attention than the political issue that spurred the protests.
In light of the comments made by prominent police chiefs and ministers in India, conversations must continue about the social regulation of women and the way sexual violence has become entrenched through a rhetoric of "Indian tradition" in contemporary India. Rather than being simply either a success or a failure, these campaigns reveal the possibilities and limits of transnational feminist organizing, especially the kind of organizing that moves beyond frameworks of harm and women as victims. Such organizing contrasts with previous Indian feminist and rights movements premised on the rhetoric of harm and injury that focus primarily on legal reform and state protection of women. SlutWalk's subversive use of "slut" and their active claim to "shamelessness" (besharmi) as well as their lack of a legislative agenda may prove less effective when arrayed against Indian movements that frame women's empowerment through the language of injury and harm. Violence-against-women campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s that addressed the prevalence of rape and sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as more recent campaigns that resulted in The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005), have looked to the law as the primary site of women's protection. Rather than concentrating on conservative ideologies of women's chastity and ideas of the "good" woman in Indian society as the site of critique, these movements have instead focused on substantive legislative reforms that provided protection to women against the harms created by patriarchal structures in India. Prominent Indian feminist legal scholars have critiqued the dependence of Indian women's and rights campaigns on the law as the sole site of reform and the limits of constructing women as vulnerable legal subjects. However, it remains to be seen how other forms of national and transnational feminist organizing will effect change with frameworks that move outside the dominant agenda of legal reform premised on legal protection from harm.
Interestingly, critiques of the social exclusions of the SlutWalks have yet to be fully addressed by organizers themselves. In India, the incorporation of the term "SlutWalk" into the campaign, despite the organizers' recommended dress restrictions, fostered vast amounts of media attention on the provocative display of the protestors. While organizers moved away from overt displays of the female body to focus attention on women's empowerment, the organizers of different SlutWalks in India did little to create a more inclusive campaign in terms of allying with local lower-class movements, lower-caste movements, or different women's organizations. Roy admits that exclusions were produced through the SlutWalk organizing in Bangalore. She reflects, "as with most social movements, this one too is an exclusive concern of the middle class. We have often thought about, but never actually approached women living in slums to join us, or even asked them for their opinion. It is a major drawback, and we hope that in the time we have gained because of this cancellation, it is something we can correct." (15) Thus far, there has been little assessment of the efficacy and potential exclusions of SlutWalk movements in India. With the use of online social media as a primary organizing tool, the campaigns of mostly middle-class, college-age young people continue to be limited in scope and message. While the framing of protest around the idea of shamelessness may not appeal to all people, organizers are quick to point out that the political issues at stake have meaning for all women. As Roy emphasizes, "the issue of victim blaming permeates through all sections of society, all parts of the country." (16)
Perhaps the SlutWalks in India will not fundamentally transform the cultures of sexual violence that pervade many urban and rural areas of India. Yet the Indian SlutWalks have highlighted the continued need for introspective feminist movements that work to invert those social norms that regulate women's behavior under the guise of "Indian tradition." The debates and backlash spurred by the SlutWalk events in India suggest that we must continue to critique longstanding norms about women's sexual impropriety and shift our focus away from victim blaming to the pervasiveness of sexual violence in India today.
(1.) Suchandana Gupta, "Desi Version of Slut Walk Fails in Conservative Bhopal," Times of India, July 18, 2011, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-07-18/ india/29786831_1_bhopal-desi-version-protest-sexual-violence.
(2.) Mayank Chaya, "The Not At-All Slutty Slut Walk of Bhopal," South Asia Daily, July 21, 2011, http://southasia.typepad.com/south_asia_daily/2011/07/the-not-at-all- slutty-slut-walk-of-bhopal.html.
(3.) Vanita Srivastava, "First Indian Slutwalk in Bhopal," Hindustan Times, July 18, 2011, http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/News/First-Indian-slutwalk-in-Bhopal/ Article1-722588.aspx.
(4.) Anindita Datta Choudhury, "SlutWalk in Delhi Will Be Called 'Besharmi Morcha,'" India Today, June 17, 2011, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/slutwalk- in-delhi-willbe-called-besharmi-morcha/l/141780.html.
(5.) "Is SlutWalk the Way to Deal with Sexual Harassment?" Face the Nation, CNN-IBN video, posted on YouTube by "ibnlive," August 1, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaZAxtw0jeU.
(6.) "Slutwalk Delhi: Copycat Feminism?" NDTV, broadcast July 30, 2011, http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/the-9-o-clock-news/slutwalk-delhi- copycatfeminism/206640.
(7.) Chaya, "The Not-At-All Slutty Slut Walk."
(8.) "Delhi's Own 'Slutwalk' All Set to Grab Eyeballs," Times of India, July 30, 2011, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-07- 30/delhi/29832493_1_jantarmantar-delhi-event-new-delhi.
(9.) "Why Bangalore Cops Cancelled Permission for SlutWalk," NDTV, broadcast December 5, 2011, updated December 9, 2011, http://www.ndtv.com/article/karnataka/whybangalore-cops-cancelled-permission- for-slutwalk-155371; "No Place for Dissent, Protest: Slut Walk Bangalore Cancelled; Permission Granted, Revoked After Threats," website of Lawctopus, December 4, 2011, http://www.lawctopus.com/2011/12/no-place-for-dissent-protest-slutwalk- bangalore-cancelled-permission-revoked.
(10.) Protiti Roy, e-mail message to author, January 13, 2012; "SlutWalk Cancelled as They Had It Coming," DNA India, December 5, 2011, http://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/repott_slutwalk-cancelled-as-they-had-it- coming_1621500.
(11.) Roy, e-mail message to author.
(13.) "Fashion to Blame for Rapes, Can't Control Them: Andhra DGP," India Today, December 30, 2011, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/andhra-pradesh-dgp-blamesfashion-for- increase-in-rapes/l/166548.html.
(14.) "BU Panel Head Wants Dress Code," Times of India, January 3, 2012, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-01- 03/bangalore/30584046_1_dresscode-sexual-harassment-bu-campus.
(15.) Roy, e-mail message to author.
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|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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