BY AISHA ZAKIRA, Director of Hollaback! Mumbai. (This piece is cross-posted from Hollaback Mumbai)
Our apologies for all the quiet on our end, but we’re back and ready for some serious snap, crackle and pop – HOLLAstyle. We have a lot coming up, but first, we wanted to talk about Umang Sabarwal’s initiation of SlutWalk Delhi, and the issues surrounding the first Asian protest of the movement against the belief that any aspect of a woman’s appearance might explain or excuse sexual violence. It’s an incredibly bold move. And before I start my spiel, I should say that my hat is off to Ms. Sabarwal for this incredibly brave leap of faith.
When a movement that was initiated in a Western country is brought to India, there will be an inevitable mélange of frenzied backlash, unbridled fervor and everything in between. Many a raised eyebrow have I seen. The main issue reiterated by the media is the use of the word ‘slut’ in the Indian context. As journalist Annie Zaidi said “on the street, it’s never thrown at you. You’re never called a ‘slut.’ It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.” She is absolutely right. The word is generally understood and used by those in the upper echelons of society who have a closer proximity to western culture. It isn’t like verbal expression isn’t used in the wide and wonderful spectrum of harassment (earlier today I was harassed by a group of men, one of whom called me a baigan, an eggplant) but the focus is generally on a woman’s body as a commodity in the present tense, rather than on her sexual history. It often feels like the focus is on how your body will be used, not how it has been used.
Moreover, SlutWalk is primarily about the desire to dress as one pleases, an issue that is often seen as irrelevant to the vast majority of Indian women in the face of more salient issues like basic workplace safety. The concern is that this will be a space accessible to wealthy women, but ideologically closed to women from every other strata of society. I also wonder about the accessibility of SlutWalk in a culture in which the honor and the – dare I say it? – morality of a woman is inextricably linked to the honor of her family and her community. I am concerned about the number of women who will not participate in SlutWalk out of fear of backlash from family and the wider community. To walk in public protest against attitudes that are so deeply ingrained into society is groundbreaking, but who has the power and space to actually participate? Will it be that the only women who can participate are those who have the economically privileged space to do so? What will that mean for those who do not feel they can participate? Journalist Bishakha De Sarkar argues that there is no reason why we can’t have many movements at different levels of society. I’m with her here; I do believe that different initiatives can act as threads that intertwine to form a stronger rope. My only concern is if one of the opening initiatives in this movement makes many women feel alienated from this discussion, then are we shooting ourselves in the foot from the get go?
I think SlutWalk needs to be one thread of a multi-stranded rope. It needs to take place in tandem with other movements to give all women a number of options by which to make noise about harassment. SlutWalk is an incredible movement, but all movements need to be localized. They need to speak to the needs of people in different cultures and contexts so that they can be as useful as possible.
But even if SlutWalk is not localized in name, the movement is ultimately about fighting the attitude that perpetuates harassment. I keep coming back to a quote from Umang Sabarwal, “the way the men look at you, you feel like meat.” This is what it comes down to: feeling like meat. Feeling ashamed and powerless. Feeling like you are not the sum of your ideals, your opinions, your experiences and whatever else you decide, you are just the capacity of your physical body as a sexual object. India is too quiet about street harassment. The world is too quiet about street harassment. And even though SlutWalk is primarily focused on women being able to wear what we want without fear of harassment or abuse, I have a feeling that Sabarwal would remind us that this is one aspect of a wider struggle against the attitude that says that women are less than, and should stay that way. For this reason, I’m all about SlutWalk Delhi. There are issues with this, but we need to start somewhere, and the prospect of women taking to the streets of India’s capital in protest of an attitude that has for centuries served to silence is undoubtedly a beautiful beginning.